You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

After a year of online learning and youth continuing to be home alone, parents and caregivers can often think that they have established appropriate internet rules and boundaries: “Don’t talk to people you don’t know”, “don’t give out personal information/tell people where you live”, or “set your profile to private”. While these are important rules and boundaries to establish, it is not until it is too late that parents and caregivers realize, they didn’t know what they didn’t know about internet safety, how their youth was at-risk, and the unknown dangers online.

They discover that there were gaps or loopholes that they did not know existed that could be manipulated. Without knowing the tactics of predators and how they use social media, parents may miss red flags and indicators that their youth may be in danger. Parents often share that there were things they wish they had known, that could have helped them understand not only the dangers their child faced but how to keep them safe.

Below are several questions, dangers, and tactics that parents wish they had known about:

How do they know where we live, go to school, etc.?

Many youth report that a predator or exploiter threatens to show up at their house, harm a sibling or parent, or show everyone at their school their conversation or photo if they do not do what they say. Parents are often amiss because they have told their child not to give out personal information about where they live or go to school, and the youth says they haven’t. However, predators are clever and will pick up clues based on photos or conversations and begin to piece it together.

For example, if a youth has school memorabilia with the name (a sweatshirt, banner, hat, etc.) that may be one clue. Perhaps a youth hops online saying they were late because they went out to eat pizza, and the person says, “oh my favorite place is “x” and the youth innocently responds “no, Y has much better pizza” and the conversation continues.

Parents and youth may know to be careful about sharing personal information, but understanding how information can be shared in a photo or conversation unintentionally can be critical in keeping youth safe.

This is not their real photo?

At some point, a predator will ask the youth to exchange photos of themselves, likely a selfie. They will send a photo of what appears to be someone the same age, leading the youth to believe that is who they are talking with. However, it is more often a photo from another victim that sent their photo or one they pulled from online. This leads the youth to believe the person in the photo they see is who they are talking to and builds trust with the youth that the youth exists and is how they say they are, because they have a photo. Also, the predator could be living in one state and claim to be in the same city or even community as the youth, creating more trust and bond.

If a youth has not met in-person who they are talking to online, there is no way to know the true identity of the person, posing great risk and danger to the youth.


What happens when my youth sends a photo?

Every time a photo is taken, if certain settings are not adjusted on the camera or camera phone, it can geotag the location of where that photo was taken. A youth who innocently sends a photo online may unknowingly give their location away. While parents may restrict who is allowed in their home, every day, youth are inviting strangers into their bedrooms with selfies, chats, and videos without realizing any of the dangers. For instance, if a youth takes a selfie, their school poster or favorite musician or sports team is highlighted behind them. If they have a school sweatshirt on, it gives more personal information out without them even having to say or type it. When they post or send that picture, clues begin to formulate about the person, providing an opportunity for a predator to make a comment, a connection, and eventually a conversation.

Photos can also be altered, so a photo that a youth sends may be edited to be degrading, humiliating, or exploitative. Youth may feel they trust who they sent the photo to, however, photos can be forwarded and end up in the hands of predators, who can then exploit them. This can happen with or without their knowledge, with photos ending up on the internet or the dark web.

Taking time to set the proper settings and share with youth about what happens when you send a photo can protect them from harm.

They aren’t who they say they are?

As parents notice their child spending more time texting or playing games, they often ask “who are you talking to?” and the youth may respond “talking with my friend ____”. While they may have never met that person, they believe they are truly friends because the predator takes time to build a relationship. Predators can take months building relationships, gaining trust and confidence, and learning as much as they can about the youth. The conversation can move from innocent friendship sharing about the day or frustrations, to sending photos and engaging in conversations that are very personal, and ultimately, once trust is built, can turn to uncomfortable or inappropriate discussions. All the while, the youth thinks they are talking to someone their age when in fact, that person is not who they say they are and probably do not even live in the same state.

Knowing that you cannot blindly trust who a person says they are online, even if they send pictures of who they claim to be, will help you and your youth stay safe.

This isn’t a crime?

Depending on the interaction, the content exchanged, and the context of the interactions/conversations, it may not meet the required threshold of a crime. Learn more about grooming, sextortion, and online enticement to better understand predators’ tactics so that you can report to the CyberTipline and local law enforcement.  Also, take time to learn what information to keep and store for evidence, such as text messages, photos, etc.

What are the warning signs?

Knowing the red flags, the risks that youth face, and the indicators can equip parents and caregivers to intervene against sextortion, online enticement, and sex trafficking.

Educating Your youth

Parents and caregivers are not the only ones who don’t know what they don’t know. Take time to share with your child about the dangers and tactics that predators use and equip them with the knowledge and tools they need to stay safe. Knowledge is power, so take time to find out what you need to know to keep the youth in your life safe.