Let’s talk about it: Teens and healthy internet usage | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

The internet is a crucial part of kids’ learning, even outside of academics. It also can expose students to predators looking to exploit them.

MAINE, Maine — The internet is now an unquestioned, routine part of your child’s life. 

Kids use it to play video games with people from all over the world, and they use social media apps to have daily group chats. The downside? It has also unlocked a door to a world full of danger: predators who want to exploit children for explicit images, personal information, and money.

The FBI sent out a warning in mid-September of violent online groups deliberately targeting minors on publicly available messaging platforms to extort them into recording or live-streaming acts of self-harm and producing child sexual abuse material, or CSAM.

In August, social media giant Snapchat announced a new in-app tool called Family Center. The company said it “will help parents get more insight into who their teens are friends with on Snapchat, and who they have been communicating with, without revealing any of the substance of those conversations.” 

“On Family Center, parents can also easily and confidentially report any accounts that may be concerning directly to our Trust and Safety teams, which work around the clock to help keep Snapchatters safe,” the company press release states. 

With more attention than ever on the safety of kids using the internet, NEWS CENTER Maine sought out experts on how parents can balance supervising their kids to protect them while trusting them to make smart decisions and mature on their own.

Meet the experts

“You’ve got a lot of power in your hands with a cellphone. It’s connected to the internet. You’re essentially connected to the whole world,” Walsh said. “You wouldn’t let your kid drive a car without a safety lesson first, so why would you do that with a cellphone?”

Here are three major concerns voiced by Walsh and Richards: 

1. Talking to strangers. 

“They are anywhere children are,” the FBI said of predators. “They may disguise their identity and appear to your child as another minor, a friend, someone interested in them romantically, or a caring adult. But in reality, they have one goal: to sexually exploit children.”

“These aren’t just individual predators that we’re finding. These are known criminals and criminal enterprises located all over the world,” Walsh said. 

The fix? Do not talk to people you do not know online, even if you think you know exactly who they are.

2. “Sextortion” is a growing problem. 

Here’s how the FBI defines sextortion: “Offenders ask children to send sexually explicit images and videos and/or engage in sexually explicit activities via video call, then capture that material without the victims’ knowledge. If a child does not comply in producing sexually explicit imagery, offenders sometimes edit and create sexually explicit images of the child. Offenders also sometimes hack a child’s social media account to get sexually explicit material stored in the child’s account.”

The FBI, NCMEC, and MSP Computer Crimes staff say the trends are changing. Offenders used to target girls in hopes of receiving sexually explicit material. Now, they are targeting boys and manipulating victims to send the predator money with the false promise of not publishing the images.

“Predators know exactly what buttons to push, what things to access, what things to say,” Richards said. “It’s important for kids to know that they’re being victimized. They’re not in trouble. They’re not breaking any laws.”

Richards said somebody will reach out pretending to be a friend or family member, using open source platforms such as Facebook or Snapchat. The predator will investigate you. your family, and who your friends are, so they can talk to you about things that are familiar.

The fix? NCMEC has a tool called “Take It Down.” 

It is a free service that can help you remove or stop the online sharing of nude, partially nude, or sexually explicit images or videos taken of you when you were under 18 years old. You can remain anonymous while using the service and you won’t have to send your images or videos to anyone. Take It Down will work on public or unencrypted online platforms that have agreed to participate. 

The tool works by assigning a unique digital fingerprint, called a hash value, to nude, partially nude, or sexually explicit images or videos of people under the age of 18. Online platforms can use hash values to detect these images or videos on their services and remove this content. This all happens without the image or video ever leaving your device or anyone viewing it. Only the hash value will be provided to NCMEC. Hash values cannot be used to recreate the image. Walsh said this tool has taken down more than 9,000 images and videos since its inception late in 2022.

“It’s an incredible example of harnessing the power of technology to fight back against child exploitation online,” Walsh said.

Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Pornhub, and more companies participate.

3. There is no single app that is more dangerous than another. The danger is in how people use them.

How to balance supervision and trust

Clinical psychologist Dr. Britt Evans offered advice for parents on how to walk the line between protective supervision, and trust.

1. Start talking to your kids about these dangers and how you want to protect them at a young age.

“Guidelines and limits look very different at age 12 compared to age 17, 18,” Evans said. “I would think about it as guardrails or training wheels that they can slowly relax over time.”

The FBI encourages parents to have access to their child’s accounts and devices, and be able to log in at any time.

“A lot of parents I work with have rules around, yes you can have this account, and I’m going to have permission to check in on it every now and then,” Evans said. “It is helpful to talk about why they’re doing this. Why do they want to check their phone? Rather than just saying, ‘This is the rule; this is the way it is.'”

2. Teach them the warning signs, and when to “stop, block, and tell.”

The warning signs include asking for personal information, soliciting images, asking to switch from online platforms to texting, and more. You can learn more about those warning signs on NCMEC’s “NetSmartz” program.

“You need to be proactive and make sure you’re preventing these risky situations from happening in the first place,” Walsh said.

3.  Remind them they’re not in trouble. 

That will help them feel safe talking to you about anything that happens.

“I think it makes sense for parents to feel scared and angry and have all of those emotions coming up that can come out as, ‘How could you do this? You should know better!’ That is shaming and blaming type of language,” Evans said. 

She said that type of blaming and shaming language can discourage kids from opening up to parents if they end up in another vulnerable situation.

“Parents really need to make sure when they’re talking to their children that they’re telling their children, ‘It’s not your fault,'” Richards said.

“It’s important for them to know that someone has actually manipulated them, and they are the victim,” Walsh said.

Here are more tips from the FBI

Learn how the security settings work on every device your child uses to include the apps and online gaming platforms. Many companies have security controls for parents, so please take advantage of them.

Have conversations with your children about not sending photos of themselves to people they meet online. Make sure they know they can come talk with you if something does happen and then reach out to the FBI or our law enforcement partners to report it. Make it clear to the child that he/she is not to blame and will not be held legally responsible if they are a victim. They should also save all material and correspondence for law enforcement review. 

Ensure children are also practicing good cyber security for their devices: use strong passwords involving upper- and lower-case letters; numbers and symbols; update software as often as possible; and only share accounts or passwords with their parents or other trusted caregiver. 

They should cover their webcam and turn off their computer when not in use. Never open email attachments unless they are certain of the sender. Use firewall and anti-malware software and consider encrypting their hard drives. Be suspicious and alert. Technology alone will not protect them.

Want to learn more? Check out these links and resources. 

FBI: What is Sextortion?

FBI Cyber Alerts for Parents and Kids:

FBI: Violent Crimes Against Children/Online Predators – Overview and Resources:

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website at includes data and a breakdown of its Cyber Tipline’s reports.

Sextortion PSA with FBI Director Wray and NCMEC CEO Michelle C. DeLaune

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