The line between street safety and virtual safety is fine and thinning. Predators frequently use social media and other online platforms to gain information on future victims, and many predatory crimes happen completely online with no physical component. Let's get into this critical part of personal safety.
How do predators use social media?
Social media allows anyone to make a profile and immediately connect to anyone else on the platform. Gaming platforms also allow live messaging between players, which is frequently utilized by predators in the same manner. In order to keep ourselves and our children safe we must learn about the tactics predators use. Here's what every adult and child needs to know.
1. Predators hide their identity
The first thing to understand is that predators often change their identity online. For example, a 58 year old man will pretend to be a 13 year old boy, and then try to talk to other 13 year old girls online through social media or gaming platforms. People use fake social media accounts for all sorts of purposes like bullying, watching a persons stories and posts, messaging someone under false pretences, and many more- all with anonymity. We can safely bet that anyone with a fake account is not up to anything good, and we should all become savvy at investigating social media profiles for authenticity.
Know the Grooming process
Once a predator establishes open communication with their victim, they begin the grooming process. A predator's goal online is always to receive content or exploit in person.
2. Predators seek trust from victims
Predators first try to establish trust. They may pretend to be someone else, or they may be open about their identity and use other manipulative tactics to gain trust from victims. Tweens and teens are often self conscious, and predators swoop in to make them feel special through compliments and validation. These tactics are also used with adult victims and with a wide variety of abusive crimes.
Essentially, predators tell the victim everything they want to hear and make them feel special.
Human traffickers (and other types of abusers) often try to find out what victims are lacking in their lives, and then move in to fill that void. This could be money, a sense of security or belonging, self esteem, or friendships. Once the predator establishes his or herself as the new trusted 'care giver', they try to isolate the victim from their friends and family. This grooming process could last anywhere from days to years.
3. Predators seek personal information
Predators seek personal information like your address, school, or phone number, which they may use to find your whereabouts in order to plan a physical attack. They may also ask details about your personal life and relationships. Predators can often find useful personal information without even messaging the victim from what the victim freely shares on their social media profile. Here's an example of when personal sharing on social media goes wrong:
In February 2020, a famous rapper called Pop Smoke was assassinated in his Beverly Hills air-bnb. The night before, Smoke shared an instagram story showing his Amiri shopping bags with his address printed on them, as well as a photo in front of the home. That night a group of gang members broke in and killed him. This video breaks down the crime.
This is a tragic real world example of how personal sharing can end up deadly. The video highlights how modern gangs are extremely sophisticated. This gang used air-bnb, real estate apps, and google maps to find luxury rental homes, and then used social media features like tags and locations to track who stayed there. As soon as the renters share a video of themselves at the beach or club, the gang moves into the home for a robbery. In worst case situations, gangs use the same method to track renters whereabouts for kidnappings, assault, robbery, or murder.
Modern criminals and gangs are sophisticated, tactical, and ruthless, and they use social media.
This tip is equally as important for adults as it is for children, especially because adults typically have open profiles with followers in the hundreds to hundreds of thousands. Never give away your address, your holiday destination, your travel dates, your bus route, anything that someone could use to find or trap you. Be careful about sharing your whereabouts constantly on your story. Both when you're at home, and especially when travelling to dangerous destinations where foreigners are targeted.
4. Predators seek sexual content
Predators will eventually bring up sexual topics because their goal is to get sexual content or to exploit in person. They will bring up inappropriate subjects and eventually ask the victim to send sexual photos or videos. Abusers often use this content against the victim to blackmail or force them into doing other acts. This is a very traumatic and damaging crime called 'sextortion' in which the abuser tells the person "if you don't do what I say, I'm going to send this photo to all of your friends and family". This happens with both children and adults, and is prevalent beyond belief.
1 in 9 youths receive unwanted requests for sexual material from peers or adults. JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH, 2018
How To Protect Ourselves and Our Children Online
It’s impossible for parents to protect their children from everything they face online. Parents must educate kids on how to protect themselves.
The first step is learning the tactics predators use so we can spot them from anyone, anywhere, anytime. The second step is taking your own precautionary measures to shield yourself from being targeted. Here are our most important tips for both children and adults.
1. Open communication & trust (not scare tactics)
One of the most important things that parents can do is maintain open communication about social media and phone use with their kids. This means parents being educated on how the apps work, why kids use them, and what the risks are. The ultimate goal is to teach your kids how to protect themselves, and make sure they are comfortable coming to you if they are in trouble.
In online safety presentations, kids have said "I don't want to tell my parents about what happened online cause they'll take my phone away". This is a bad strategy, because for kids and teens,
fear of losing their device is greater than the fear of real world dangers.
Kids need to know that they can go to their parents with concerns about what they see online without the threat of being punished or getting their phone taken. Instead of playing the "I'll take your phone away" game or demonizing them for social media use, it's more helpful to all parties to have open conversations. At least this way, you'll know what's going on with their online lives. These discussions must take place as soon as your child gets their phone, and continue throughout their teen years. Some good questions to get the ball rolling are:
why do you like instagram/facebook/tiktok?
what do your friends use it for?
do you or your friends ever see anything you don't like online?
The most comfortable they are talking about this with you the safer they will be, and the more opportunities you will have to give them good advice. I also highly suggest having your kids as friends on social media so that you can monitor their sharing habits, and have their passwords as well.
2. All Profiles of Minors Should Be Private (NON NEGOTIABLE)
The easiest way to protect your information is to have a private profile. With an open profile, anyone in the world with a social media account can see everything you share. Since we know that children and teens are not going to be responsible all the time (heck, even adults aren't), a private profile will make sure that at least strangers can't see what they share.
The second part of this is to make sure that children only accept people they know in real life as friends on social media. If your kid accepts people because they 'seem nice', this rule loses it's purpose. Make sure your kids know that predators are very good at disguising themselves online to look 'nice', or to look like a completely different person.
It's important to talk with your kids about 'instagram fame' and how likes, comments, and followers are not the real metric of coolness and worthiness. Many of my students have told me that they've been put down over how many likes they get, which is the new popularity metric. So naturally, kids don't want private profiles because they want to get more likes from strangers. Do your best to instil real confidence and real values in your kids so they know that likes and comments do not define them. At the very least, private profiles for minors should be an unbreakable social media rule in your household.
3. Think Before You Post/Send
We all have to fully understand the risks that come with social media. Many people have to learn the hard way that once you put something online, whether it's words, photos, or videos, it stays online forever. This can have all sorts of consequences for people, including a future employer not liking your tweets, your principle or police officer holding you accountable for cyberbullying, mean kids at school spreading inappropriate photos, or predators who try to use those photos against you. Unfortunately this is one of the most common tactics used by abusers, who manipulate and control their victims with threats of 'exposing' them or their content.
This is FAR more common than people realize. In our camps I ask "who here knows someone who's had an inappropriate photo of them go around their school?" And every single time, multiple hands shoot up. Similarly, the use of inappropriate content to control victims in the realm of human trafficking or sexual abuse is beyond prevalent. It happens all the time, and it's mental and emotional consequences are devastating. This traumatic exploitation leads to depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and even suicide.
No one deserves to be in this situation, but unfortunately the ONLY way we can prevent it is through our own awareness and our own actions.
Make sure your kids know to never put something online that they don't want there forever, or for all to see. They also need to feel comfortable saying no to requests, even if it's from their own real life boyfriend or friends. If your daughter has already gone through something like this, try to help her understand that life does go on, and that your past does not dictate your future!
4. Know The Difference Between Inappropriate Adult Contact And Safe Adult Contact
Okay, time to take this safety lesson to level two. The vast majority of predators already know their victim and are not strangers. This is true for abduction, assault, and sexual abuse. 'Stranger Danger' is therefore insufficient, in person and online. Child abusers largely abuse the kids they already have access to in their daily lives, and they can easily slip through the hiring process of pretty much any organization.
Let's say you child has a private profile, they don't accept strangers as friends, and they never post inappropriate content. But one day your child's soccer coach texts them at 11pm and asks "hey, what's up :)"
In the summer of 2021 a Brazilian jiu jitsu coach from a famous gym was arrested for the sexual abuse of his 16 year old female student. The case brought international attention to sexual misconduct and abuse in the martial arts community, leading to thousands of practitioners around the world speaking out and sharing their stories. The case was even written about in the New York Times:
"Allegations of sexual assault by fighters and instructors affiliated with Fight Sports underscore the failure of many global organizations to protect young women who participate in sports. This year alone, scandals involving sexual or psychological abuse have emerged in basketball, water polo, synchronized swimming, fencing, soccer and even dragon boat racing. The jiu-jitsu allegations follow a pattern in which top officials and coaches, operating with little oversight, are accused of seeking to protect the interests of the sport instead of victims."
Children need to understand what inappropriate behaviour looks like, even when it comes from an adult they know. This applies equally to all adults including doctors, teachers, coaches, step parents, religious leaders, etc. Here are some red flag behaviours when it comes to adults messaging children:
An adult who comments on and likes all your photos. Normal adults do not try to flatter kids through social media. Adults are not usually interested in following minors on social media or commenting on their photos.
An adult who tells a child to keep secrets.
An adult who starts a chat with a minor in private messages. Safe adults have almost no appropriate reason to message minors privately.
Sexual topics brought up by an adult to a minor.
Your kids need to know that there is a difference between their coach texting them an important piece of information about tomorrows competition, and starting an open conversation with them at night using flattering language. Safe adults know that this is inappropriate behaviour. Unfortunately though, many minors do not see this as inappropriate because they do not see themselves as children. When I was 14 and joined my first kickboxing class, I saw myself as a grown up, not a child, and that's how most young teenagers feel. So to teens, an adult messaging them or showing interest in them may not seem predatory at all.
And because of the strongly established trust between the minor and the predator in these situations (which are the most common ones), the inappropriate behaviour goes unreported for way too long. This may happen because the victim doesn't see the behaviour as inappropriate, they feel guilty about 'snitching' or ruining the adults life, they're afraid to tell their parents because the predator is a family friend or family member, or because they fear the abuser.
Predators take advantage of any power imbalance that they can
Discuss with your children what constitutes an inappropriate conversation between adults and minors, and make sure that teenagers know that they are still teens! Any adult that attempts to establish a sexual relationship with a teen is not only predatory but committing a crime. Children cannot legally consent to sexual acts with adults, which makes any sexual act between them rape or sexual abuse of a minor. Teens must be aware of this and be prepared to say no and tell a parent if an adult is ever inappropriate with them online or in person.
It's a lot, I know!
It seems overwhelming to keep ourselves and our kids safe in the modern world. The best we can do is be aware of the various ploys, traps, lures, and strategies used by predators and prepare our own defenses against them. Indeed, virtual awareness is a crucial extension of situational awareness and must be practiced by all who aim to protect themselves.
Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of
Girls Who Fight.
Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives. Learn about our programs >