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The explosion of online child predators amid COVID-19’s virtual world

On a February afternoon just outside of San Diego, California,  police officers raided an apartment to rescue an 11-year-old girl from her alleged abductor. 20-year-old Jose Melena, her captor, barricaded himself in a bathroom as officers surrounded him and retrieved the girl (Link). Melena was cornered, and unsuccessfully attempted to take his own life as a last resort. According to the National City Police Department (NCPD), it had been eight long hours since the girl’s parents discovered their child missing from her bedroom.

          NCPD, which is in San Diego County in far Southern California, said the child had met Melena through Roblox, an online game that’s popular amongst children and pre-teens. Although Roblox on its own isn’t dangerous, online child predators like Melena often frequent online gaming platforms in the hopes of exploiting unsuspecting young children. Unfortunately, cases like the one described have become much more common over the last year.

            As most of our nation continues to suffer under the cloud of COVID-19, child predators are thriving in the expanded online environment. Children are spending much more time online with virtual learning, but their hobbies such as gaming have shifted almost exclusively online as well. According to a National Geographic article, traffic among online video game communities has skyrocketed, with games like Roblox and Minecraft exploding in popularity. Unfortunately, the presence of online predators has increased as well.

            Online predators have been a threat for the better part of two decades, but the threat is now larger than it’s ever been. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the number of child enticement reports nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020.

            There were roughly 15,200 enticement reports in 2019 compared to over 30,200 in 2020 when most of the nation went virtual. “Online enticements involve an individual communicating with a child over the internet with the intent to commit a sexual offense or even an abduction,” said Belinda Swan, the outreach manager for NCMEC’s Austin base. Before she worked for NCMEC, Swan served in the Cybercrime unit for the Texas Attorney General’s office. “Technology is always changing, but the methods and behaviors of these predators remain the same,” said Swan.

            Although the internet is a playground for predators, online video game communities are one of the most frequented niche platforms for child predators. Whether it be online games on mobile phones, consoles or computers, these child predators are there, lurking in the shadows of video game chatrooms with anonymous usernames.

            “Essentially, they’re there because this is where the kids are,” said Swan. “Seventy-two percent of teenagers, both male and female, play video games… They’re interacting about the game and they’re socializing about the game. So, if you want to find a kid and find common ground with them, that’s where it’ll be.”

            The methods of these child predators are the same meticulous, organized patterns they’ve used before, they’ve simply altered them to the growing video game community. Often after developing trust and faking shared interests with the child, predators begin enticing them with items for the online game such as virtual currency, locked characters, exclusive weapons, etc. in exchange for explicit pictures or other child sexual abuse material. Preying on the vulnerability of children and teens is how online predators succeed at finding and enticing victims.

            “We need to understand that these people do their homework,” said Swan. “They cast a wide net and as soon as one child responds, they’ll look up all the information they can find on that child and use that information to create a ‘bond’ with them…”

“They take their time.”

            COVID-19 has affected so many different facets of life that it’s impossible to keep track of them all, and last year’s spike in child predator cases is a glaring example of that. This unintended consequence of going virtual makes practical sense, but it’s something that’s remained largely unseen. “They’ve played online a lot more during the pandemic because that’s just how they talk to their friends,” said Aliza Peña, mother of two children (ages 8, 11). “That’s been one of the only things they can do, so they get on with their friends and talk while they play.”

            The dramatic shift to online platforms has been necessary amid the pandemic. Social interaction is important to everyone’s mental health, but according to psychology professor Patrick Markey of Villanova University who is cited in the National Geographic article, it’s especially important to children and teenagers who are still developing. Technology and video games have allowed kids to keep in constant contact with each other which is vital to their mental well-being. Playing video games with friends online is a great way for kids to enjoy themselves and be social in a world where social interaction is limited. Online video game communities are not inherently dangerous, but dangerous people rely heavily on these gaming platforms to harm unsuspecting children.

            For kids to enjoy themselves safely, it’s more important than ever for them to know how to identify child predators. Even though many families have their kids at home with them, parents can’t monitor what their child does online at all hours of the day. “I’m home but you know I’m distracted with work and things while they’re playing, so I don’t always know what they’re doing,” said Peña. “It’s one of those things where you think it won’t happen to us, but if it does  how will they know it’s happening unless I talk to them?”

            NCMEC runs a CyberTipline where parents and the public can submit instances of children being targeted online. There was a 68% increase from 2019 to 2020 in the number of tips reported. “Anybody, even anonymously, can report any instance of online activity that they think may be harming a child,” said Swan. “The beauty of it is we [NCMEC] have files, forensic equipment, databases, and everything we need to run millions of pictures and cross reference them with email addresses, suspect descriptions and anything to see if the victim or suspect has been reported before.” It’s an efficient system that has people working around the clock to protect children from online predators.

            “We don’t investigate,” said Swan. “We research, analyze, use our tools, and then package what we find and send it to law enforcement.”

            NCMEC also has counselors and a survivor community readily available for victims, parents, and even those who call in tips or report them online. Anybody can call 1-800-THE-LOST or visit the website to report suspicious behavior at any time.

            Almost every new game has an online option where you can play with friends so that the game can appeal to broader audiences and grow their base. It’s become almost impossible to avoid. The war against online predators is perhaps more rampant and more important than it’s ever been, yet the battle has been tucked away somewhere underneath the pile of chaos 2020 brought to our population.

            “I had no idea,” said Elizabeth Gonzales, mother of two teenagers, about the video gaming platform being such a popular hunting ground for child predators. “I know my son is older and he’s smart, but of course it still makes me feel uneasy when I see him playing online. Just knowing there’s a possibility of him being a target is scary.”

            The dangers of online gaming are a reminder that we are not transitioning into the digital world anymore, we’re already here. The internet is fully immersed in each of our lives, and children today have not known a world without it. “We need to remember not to be judgmental,” said Swan. “We need to take the blinders off and accept that the internet and online gaming is simply part of the world our kids are growing up in. It’s engrained in them,” she says.

            “I’m 42,” said Swan. “All of the dangers we were told to avoid when I was a kid are still there, they’re just online. They’re online and they’re harder to see.”

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