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Online predators, the hidden pandemic

First slide

For more than a year, our country and the entire world has been combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay-at-home orders, face mask requirements and social distancing have become familiar government-backed restrictions to protect the public and curb the spread of the illness. 


Yet, another pandemic has been lurking in the shadows affecting the most vulnerable of our families — our children. Online sexual predators are using the COVID-19 crisis to target and exploit children. While there always have been individuals who sexually exploit and abuse children in our society, the internet makes it easier for sexual offenders to connect with, seek out, exploit and harm children through a vast array of online platforms and tools.


Last year brought a staggering increase in reports pertaining to the online sexual exploitation of children. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of online enticement to its CyberTipline nearly doubled in 2020 compared to the previous year. The CyberTipline also experienced the highest number of reports ever received in a single year — over 21.7 million.


While the factors contributing to the rise in reports of child sexual exploitation may be difficult to singularly identify, law enforcement officials have indicated that the circumstances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to this increase. COVID-19 disrupted normal childcare routines, with many schools being closed. Many students are learning in a virtual classroom, using webcams for the first time and going online to complete homework assignments. 


This increased familiarity and use of social networking platforms, games and apps can lead parents and children into a false sense of security and to not recognize the presence of online sexual predators. Many parents think that child sexual exploitation may not happen to their child, but online sexual exploitation can happen to any child. 


Online predators excel at manipulating children. Through false online personas, they pretend to be the child’s friend. Offenders exploit our child’s trust and isolate them through fear and shame, not only to keep them silent but also to entice them to view and/or produce sexually explicit content. A predator may even take an innocent screen shot and then sexualize it to further blackmail and exploit a child.


What can you do? Consider the following 10 tips for parents or guardians to help protect our children from the risk of online predators. 


1) Discuss how to be safe online with your kids. 


2) Investigate and approve any online games, apps or programs. 


3) Centrally locate digital devices and keep your kids in sight when they’re online.


4) Engage security tools and privacy features to guard against viewing explicit content. 


5) Review their search history, profile and any content sent to them or that they have posted online.  


6) Know who your child chats with online and review their friends list.  


7) Educate yourself and them about what to do if someone tries to exploit or bully them online.


8) Identify other trusted adults they may speak with if anything makes them feel scared, uncomfortable or confused. 


9) Develop a relationship with your child that allows them to freely share what they are doing online with you. 


10) Avoid being punitive or judgmental and be encouraging when discussing online safety with your child.


It is vitally important that we remind our children they are loved and that you just want to make sure they are safe. Online predators thrive in secrecy and will not hesitate to manipulate children so they feel too scared or ashamed to tell.


Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, stated at the Protection of Minors in the Church meeting in 2019, “The church’s aim will thus be to hear, watch over, protect and care for abused, exploited and forgotten children, wherever they are.” 


It’s a call we’ve taken to heart in the Diocese of Arlington. For instance, over the past fiscal year alone, the Child Protection and Safety Office has trained more than 3,300 adult employees and volunteers in the Virtus: Protecting God’s Childrenprogram and educated more than 32,000 children on best practices to stay safe online.


Let us pray and work together to combat the evil of online child sexual exploitation, protect our loved ones, and strive toward eradicating this hidden pandemic with the same zeal and dedication we are using to fight COVID-19.


Klein is program specialist with the diocesan Child Protection and Safety Office.


Find out more


To learn more about what the Arlington diocese is doing to help combat child sexual exploitation, go to arlingtondiocese.org/capm/.


If you suspect your child has been victimized or exposed to harmful content online, submit a CyberTipline report by going to missingkids.org/gethelpnow/cybertipline.






© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021