The Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) is reminding parents to safeguard their children and teenagers against invasions of privacy, cyberbullying, sexting, and other forms of harassment found online.
Online sexual exploitation of minors is a vastly underreported crime. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received more than 29 million tips of suspected child sexual exploitation during 2021, 7.5 million more than NCMEC received during 2020.
“Child predators have always found ways to target children,” said Edward LaBarge, Assistant Director of CID’s Cyber Directorate. “The Internet has just made it extremely easy for these predators to find, chat with, and meet their victims.”
Minors, having access to internet-connected devices at early ages, are easily accessible through social media, email, texting, video game platforms, online forums, chat rooms, message boards, and dating applications; the child sexual predators are aware of this.
“Any device connected to the Internet has the potential to be used by these predators to engage in conversations with your child,” he warned. “Smartphones, gaming consoles, computers, tablets, etc. all provide an avenue for these predators to engage with children.”
CID remains committed to preventing child exploitation and crimes against children, educating the greater Army family about child exploitation, and investigating child exploitation and other crimes impacting children.
“The best tactic is to routinely discuss online safety with your child,” said LaBarge. “More and more children are starting to have cellular telephones and access to Internet connected devices at very young ages. It is very important to discuss and reinforce safety. Parents should start talking about safety in general as early as possible.”
CID also recommends laying out “ground rules and boundaries” prior to children gaining access to electronic devices connected to the Internet.
“Never let your child have free rein on any electronic device,” said LaBarge. “It is important to discuss safety and boundaries before giving access and lay out the consequences for not adhering to them.
”Many cybercriminals use the anonymity offered by the Internet to prey on vulnerable children and teenagers. This allows the criminal to mask their real identities and leverage the curiosity of children when seeking victims.
According to NCMEC, the number of data files, to include images and videos, received containing child sexual abuse material exceeded 84 million files, with 44 million of those files being videos.
Cyber predators and criminals continue to use a variety of tactics and platforms to prey on unsuspecting children. The information below briefly describes categories of online sexual exploitation, indicators to look for, ways to protect children, and how to report and get help.
Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM)
CSAM includes any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor.
Online Enticement of a Child
Online Enticement includes communication online with a suspected minor with the intent to abduct or sexually exploit the minor, establish a meet-up with the minor for a sexual encounter, solicitate sexually explicit photos from the minor, or engage in child grooming, building trust, with the minor to later manipulate, exploit, or abuse them.
Sextortion, frequently beginning as a form of online enticement, is a type of sexual exploitation that typically comes in the form of blackmail or a threat of sharing the victim’s sexually explicit images to the public, friends, and/or family. It can also include trying to obtain money or additional sexually explicit images from the victim.
Sexting includes sharing and/or receiving sexually explicit messages, images, or videos through text messaging.
Child Sex Trafficking
Child Sex Trafficking is the exploitation of a minor through a sexual activity. The minor may be exchanged for a sexual activity by payment of money, drugs, or anything of value.
Online Sexual Exploitation Indicators
The following list includes some common indicators minor children are victims of online sexual exploitation may exhibit.
• Spending an increasing amount of time online, especially at night.
• Not being able to speak about what is being viewed online.
• Becoming possessive, secretive, and attempting to hide the screen of electronic device.
• Showing signs of anger and irritation when asked about online content being viewed.
• Unexplained personality changes or mood swings when discussing the use of electronic devices or online activity.
• Self-harm or mentioning self-harm or suicide.
• Not sharing names of online friends.
• Sharing inappropriate images with others.
Ways to Protect Children Online
A perfect platform or application for preventing online sexual exploitation of minors does not exist. Parental involvement is critical to help children use the internet safely and reduce the risk of a minor becoming a victim.
• Talk to minors about appropriate online activities and behavior. NetSmartz Resources has excellent age-appropriate resources for parents, educators, and communities.
• Become familiar with the technology platforms minors use.
• Keep game consoles and other electronic devices in an easy to supervise location.
• Be aware of internet connected devices accessible to minors. • Use privacy controls when setting up accounts.
• Have minors choose appropriate screen names or online monikers. Avoid using a minor’s real name, do not use meaningful numbers, avoid including location information, keep the moniker nonsexual and without vulgar, to avoid attracting sexual predators, and do not use the same moniker across multiple platforms.
• Set rules for minors about what can be shared online.
• Discuss with minors to never give out information online to include passwords, home address, location, phone number, or email address. • Educate minors about the risks of communicating with and responding to online strangers online.
• Discuss with minors the need to be cautious about meeting someone in person that was met online.
Victims of online sexual exploitation may feel hopeless and, in some cases, commit suicide. If a minor is showing signs of suicidal ideations or emotional distress, reach out to the National Suicide Hotline by phone at 988 or online.
If you suspect a minor has been victimized, contact your local CID office or law enforcement agency and report the incident to the NCMEC at CyberTipline.org. If you have access to the devices used to exploit the minor, do not delete any communication or content shared between the minor and the suspected exploiter.
As a reminder, criminal or suspicious activity can be reported anonymously at https://www.cid.army.mil/report-a-crime.html.