Coronavirus opens up more opportunities for online predators

Published: Jun. 15, 2020 at 2:34 PM EDT
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Most families have pivoted to life online during the pandemic, using virtual classrooms and play dates to stay connected. But it has also put some children at risk.

Tonda Sellers is a technology expert and always careful with what her 10-year-old son does online. He was recently playing a game with classmates she thought was closed to outsiders, but someone claiming to be a YouTube celebrity was able to join. When Sellers realized a stranger was in the game, she pulled her son off immediately.

"And I said, OK, I said, 'Do you understand how that opened you up to the possibility of someone not good being in your life?' And he was like, 'Well, I was on top of my game, and I thought it was cool that he was in there,'" Sellers said.

Nothing bad happened in this case, but experts say children spending more time at home during the pandemic are also spending more time online and that creates more opportunities for predators.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says in May its tip line saw a 126% increase in reports of suspected child sexual exploitation cases compared to last year.

"That's why it's so important for parents to really understand some of the dangers," said Callahan Walsh, a child advocate with the center.

Walsh says the center has also seen increased chatter among online predators on the dark web.

"They're sharing ideas and sharing knowledge with each other on how to exploit, how to groom, how to entice children online because they know there is a spike in that screen time for children," Walsh said.

The center recommends parents set up screens in areas where they can see what their child is doing, limit screen time and implement a digital curfew so kids can't use devices after a certain hour. Experts say parents should also play games with their children to get a better understanding of the technology.

"What this taught me was is, kids are always smarter than you when it comes to technology," Sellers said.

Now, she's more vigilant than ever when the screens are on.

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