With children spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, parents are being warned their kids could be more vulnerable to online predators.
B.C.’s Integrated Child Exploitation (ICE) team says it saw a 45 per cent uptick in reports of exploitation, including child luring, grooming and child pornography between March and May over the same months last year.
Cpl. Sharen Leung says that increase can’t be conclusively linked to the pandemic, but that it makes sense.
“If they’re at home and they are just reaching and craving for that interaction with their friends but not allowed to go out, I can see that being a danger online because they’re craving for new friends and conversations,” she said.
Police get the most reports about activity on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, Leung said, but added predators are also known to infiltrate games like Minecraft, Robolox and Call of Duty.
“Basically where kids go, no matter what application or social media they’re on is where predators can also go. The dangers to a lot of these social media platforms is the chat option, which is where grooming can begin,” she said.
Red flags to watch for include if a child becomes withdrawn, changes their behaviour or receives gifts online, she said. Parents should also learn about who their children’s online friends are.
Jesse Miller with the non-profit Mediated Reality says parents shouldn’t panic about the uptick in recent reports, noting the higher numbers could be a result of parents being around their kids more often while working from home.
But he stressed it’s important for parents to keep an open channel of communication with their kids about what’s going on in their online lives.
“Anytime a child feels uncomfortable with the internet, it requires a healthy adult dialogue that’s not judgmental,” he said.
“If the parent is making it so that the child feels shame, doesn’t feel safe, that they’re wrong because they went to do something online, all of a sudden you’re going to have a child who’s more prone (to grooming) than they were before talking about their experience.”
Miller said cutting off internet access or taking a device away form a child after an incident could lead the child not to talk to their parent next time.
Parents looking to be proactive about protecting kids from predators can do a few simple things at home, says Leung.
Those include setting limits on online time and ensuring that kids are using computers and devices in a common area of the home where parents can monitor their activities.
She also recommends limiting the use of webcams to when a parent is around, and having frank conversations with children about not giving out any personal information.