Updated: Oct 29
Sasha is an 11-year-old girl. She’s frequently on social media and lately she’s noticed that the same 16-year-old boy keeps liking all of her posts. She’s never met him in real life, but he looks cute in his pictures, and he lives in the same city. Not only does he like all her posts, but he also keeps commenting on Sasha’s pictures telling her how pretty she is. Sasha is too shy to message him but is delighted when he eventually messages her on Instagram, and they start chatting.
To Sasha the interaction is exciting and flattering. To anyone on the outside looking in, there are plenty of red flags. Many predators use this type of grooming to build a relationship with their potential victims.
It’s easy for predators to create an online profile that looks realistic. They can lie about their ages, post fake profile pictures, and pretend to be much younger than they are. They also know that our brains get a dopamine hit when our posts and photos are liked. They consistently give their victims one dopamine hit after another (which creates a pleasurable feeling in our brains) before they start talking to a victim. They may take their time, creating a sense of security and trust and luring the victim into believing they care before crossing any boundaries.
The boundary crossing may be small at first, like asking the victim to message them at night, when the victim should be asleep. Or asking for an “innocent” selfie. Eventually, as the victim trusts them, they start to cross more overt boundaries, like asking for “sexy” pictures, making sexual comments, or they start to make plans to meet the victim in person.
For tweens and teens, especially ones that are lonely, feel purposeless, or unseen, this attention can feel life-giving, and the red flags are ignored. Steph, a trauma healing coach (who can be found at Trauma Healing, Nervous System Regulation and Somatic Tools (mykajabi.com)) writes, “If all you’ve known is fight or flight, your nervous system might mistake red flags for butterflies.”
Predators are primarily online looking for vulnerable kids today, instead of prowling malls or parks. They know all it takes is finding a child who is looking for validation and they can start their manipulation. Their end goal is to eventually coerce nude photos or videos out of the child or to convince them to meet in person so they can sexually abuse or exploit the child.
While it’s a frightening reality, there are things we can do to prevent this from happening. One of the most effective tools we have is raising awareness. Adults need to understand what is happening online to be able to protect kids from it. There are several great local organizations who can teach more on the topic including Paradigm Shift Training and Consulting- Teachers (paradigmshifttc.com).
It’s also important for children to learn about this topic, so they can spot a red flag online and tell a trusted adult. The Stop Trafficking Project does an excellent job of educating students on this topic in an age-appropriate way Home (stoptraffickingproject.com).
Lastly, adults must monitor what is happening online with children. Conversations about online safety need to be frequent and devices need to be checked frequently. It’s also important to not let children have their phones in their rooms at night where they sleep, because this is where much of the boundary crossing happens with predators.
Some helpful ideas in being able to monitor devices can be found here- Protect Young Eyes: Internet Safety for Families, Schools, and Churches and Bark — Parental Controls for Families.
There is hope for parents and kids navigating the digital world, but it takes awareness, ongoing conversations, and commitment to vigilance.