Advances in technology are constantly changing the dialogue about how we protect our children from potential predators. Over the last decade, parents have had to reform their strategy when it comes to protecting their child in the real world. Before, parents cautioned their kids on stranger danger, special code words, and remaining aware of their surroundings in public. In a new era of unfettered internet access through multiple smart devices, parents had to contend with the real world being brought into their homes, with predators targeting their children through social media. Now, it appears parents will yet again have to add some new pages to the playbook when it comes to protecting their children from predators on video game platforms with integrated social networking.
Parents with children between the ages of 12-25 will likely be familiar with the online first-person shooter video game known as Fortnite. In the game, 100 players at a time compete to be the last one standing in a battle-royale style of combat. The game features a chat feature allowing players to communicate in team efforts and other uses. It has great potential to foster team building and cooperation between young people, but also has a dark side recently illuminated by an arrest made in Florida in late January.
Authorities arrested 41-year-old, Anthony Thomas, a man who allegedly used Fortnite’s instant-messaging feature to groom over 20 minors, including a 17-year-old, with whom law enforcement allege he had a sexual relationship. The Florida Attorney General’s Office also stated Thomas has been charged with 22 counts of possession of child pornography, and other charges related to his unlawful sexual relationship with the minor. Investigators uncovered he groomed the minors by sending them gifts—including a cell phone so their communication could remain more private. Ashley Moody, Attorney General, remarked about the predation perpetrated, “This case is disturbing, not only because it involves child pornography, but also because a popular online game was used to communicate with the victim.”
Grooming is defined as “a process by which a child predator gains the trust of a victim by building a relationship with the child and then breaking down his or her defenses.” Once a predator has earned their trust, they begin exploitation. Minors who are groomed in the gaming community are particularly vulnerable because the predator may literally be on their team. Cooperative play between players fosters a healthy, “there’s no ‘I’ in TEAM,” mentality, but predators use this relationship to manipulate the minor.
One of a predator’s greatest weapons when grooming a minor online is pop culture. The predator—perhaps unlike the minor’s parents—shows their target they’re “hip and cool”, and are able to converse at their level about something they enjoy. This causes the minor to lower their guard, and the predator begins their manipulation game, culminating in the exploitation of said minor. Online gaming is becoming so ubiquitous predators have developed a way to sense when a minor’s gaming is suddenly being supervised. The moment a minor’s behavior changes—they stop responding to messages, or do so uncharacteristically—the predator can pick up on that and cease all communication before they’re caught.
Unfortunately, even if a parent is supervising the communication between their minor child and other players online, it doesn’t mean they cannot be groomed. In the grooming process, between the introduction and the beginning of the exploitation, predators often suggest moving their communications to a third-party app, like What’sApp or Snapchat. These are apps where communications disappear with ease, and a parent performing their due-diligence in supervising their child’s internet safety may not notice, or even know how to access. TeenSafe says it’s critical parents learn to recognize the signs of grooming in their minor child.
Signs of Grooming
- Your child wants to spend more time online or playing games on a console, but won’t tell you why.
- Your child does not want to discuss what he or she does online, or what websites he or she visits.
- You notice your child is using inappropriate language he or she would not have heard within your home or at school.
- When you walk in a room, your child quickly changes the computer screen, mutes the volume on their gaming console, or turns it off all together.
Fortnite and other games with similar messaging platforms have been on law enforcement’s radar for the last few years as the instances of these cases continues to grow. In August of 2018, Titania Jordan, a digital safety expert, appeared on The Doctors to provide parents with helpful tips—not just for supervising their children’s gaming—but also for establishing boundaries that can nip grooming in the bud.
- Do not allow minors to have computers, game consoles, or tablets in their room without supervision. Keeping these devices in common areas will increase visibility and deter predators from targeting them.
- Instruct your child to never reveal any personal information about themselves to people they’ve met online, especially very specific information, such as where they live or where they go to school.
- Create a culture of openness in your home where children feel comfortable coming to you if they feel uncomfortable about an interaction they’ve had online.
People of all ages play video games, but the vast majority of players are either minors or young adults, and parents often find themselves overwhelmed with the strange new world of online gaming. Titania Jordan reminded parents knowledge is power, recommending they verse themselves in the games their children play. This can only heighten your ability to detect when something is off. This means doing research online, and actively listening when your children describe normal gameplay behavior.
Having an internet connection in your home may feel like you’re inviting predators into your home. And true, there’s no time to supervise every single activity your child does online. This is why it’s so important to nurture an open line of communication between parent and child. Not only will parents be able to sense when something is amiss in their child’s online interactions, but a strong bond between parent and child makes it less likely that an online predator will be able to isolate the child emotionally and manipulate them for the purposes of exploitation.