This weekend I was hit hard by a disturbing article in The New York Times (NYT) about kids targeted by sexual predators via direct chats and in multiplayer video game chat rooms.

In a chat, people with bad intentions can pretend to be any age. They can say they are a friend-of-a-friend as a way to enter the chat. Children are susceptible because they are unsuspecting, and by the time they may realize something is not right, shame and threats may already be in place to keep them quiet and scared. 

People have been reporting problems much more frequently than just a few years ago. According to The New York Times article: “Six years ago, a little over 50 reports of the crimes, commonly known as “sextortion,” were referred to the federally designated clearinghouse in suburban Washington that tracks online child sexual abuse. Last year, the center received over 1,500. And the authorities believe that the vast majority of sextortion cases are never reported.”

These predators connect to kids who play games like Minecraft, Fortnite, and any game that has a chat function, slowly “grooming” their victims (“grooming” is such a creepy word—which is fitting— and refers to a perpetrator working to gain a child’s trust with the intent of doing sex related crimes).

 Things to know:

  1. Criminals pretend to be teens and start conversations. I learned from the NYT article that often they pretend to have emotional hardships and use that as a way of building the relationship. I find this so disturbing. 
  2. They might buy gaming currency, like Fortnite V-Bucks, for the kids.
  3. Their goal is to try to get sexually explicit photos and videos to use as blackmail for more imagery.

This kind of extortion happens with many games. A Seattle man was convicted for posing as a teen and getting explicit photos from boys via Minecraft and League of Legends. 

The NYT article reports how Roblox, a game for small children, allows players to chat with others. Youth are socializing online through the chat functions on the games themselves but also on third-party chat sites like Discord and Omegle (whose tagline is Talk to Strangers), where interacting with strangers is the norm. Discord is a chat feature with text, video, and voice chat to meet up “live” while gaming. Once predators establish a “trusted-relationship” in an open space chat room, they will try to move these interactions to private conversations on platforms like Kik and Facebook Messenger. 

As parents, teachers, and counselors, let’s be proactive by having conversations about warning signs and red flag behaviors before our youth get targeted. It is critical to consider how we can engage our kids in productive conversations, without making them too anxious and without coming off as too anxious ourselves. 

  1. Being strategic with our kids when we talk to them about these topics is vital. Start a conversation with the assumption that your child is doing the things you have asked, such as only interacting with people online that they know in real life. But then, verify, using a tone that assures them that your main goal is to reinforce safety, not impose punishment. (Yes, there may be consequences, but when they tell us the truth, praise them, rather than focus on the breaching of a rule. This way you will get more honesty in the future.) 
  2. We don’t want them to think we think this is happening everywhere and all the time. It’s not. But it is about letting them know that this is a risk and we need to all work together to think deeply about how we prevent and stop suspicious activity.
  3. These risks are serious, and can even be life-threatening. I spent time with Carol Todd whose daughter Amanda tragically died by suicide after ongoing, online sextortion. It was an awful story that you may have heard about. When I visited her in Canada, we talked for hours. She showed me her daughter’s room. We hugged and shed tears. She has done tremendous advocacy work for online safety and mental health and I was happy to be able to help in one of her advocacy activities years ago. She is a true hero of mine. (The adult man who was doing the sextortion is behind bars.)
  4. Something I find helpful is to foster a discussion about these topics with your kid and someone they play video games with, and that person’s parent. Start a conversation about these topics, working to engage the youth. Try to shift the conversation from what they are playing to the more significant discussion around the issues, all the while weaving in the points you are trying to convey. You might say something like, “I imagine the parents of such and such kid were so glad their child told them what was going on. I know the parent might have wanted to throw away all their games, but hopefully, instead, they talked about how to find balance and safety so that safe gaming could still happen.” 
  5. Talk to other parents. It’s so important to find out ways they are trying to promote safe video games too.
  6. Take some time to learn about the games your kids are playing, and about the chatting apps. Then, let your kids know the type of info that you have gleaned and ask if what you learned sounds accurate or not. 
  7. And SO IMPORTANT, occasionally play video games with your kids. Participating is a great way to see what is happening in chats. They might not want you to play because there can be swearing and such, but if you say to them, something like, “I know there may be language I don’t like, but I promise to hold my tongue. I want to look through a small window into your video game life because I know it means a lot to you.”

Here are a few questions to get the conversation started:

  1. Do you like to “chat” while you game?
  2. How do you determine with whom you chat?
  3. If you are in a group chat and someone invites someone you don’t know, how do you make sure they are who they say they are?
  4. On social media, how much chatting happens with people that people don’t really know? 
  5. Question for youth:  If you were leading a group of younger than you students in a discussion about this topic of online safety and chat situations, what would you say to them. ** If your teen would be willing to share this with me, I would love to hear it, and with permission, anonymously post.