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How can I protect my kid from online predators?

How to safely navigate your kid through the online world with tips for spotting red flags, how to behave, and where to not hang out.

Is there anything scarier than the thought of your kid chatting with a potential predator? Someone who "grooms" your child with attention, gifts, or money in return for sexual favors? It's every parent's nightmare. And in a world where our kids can easily text, video-chat, and exchange images with literally anyone on the internet, it feels totally appropriate to assume danger is around every corner. Except, it's not. Yes, kids are victimized online. But who's doing it and who's at risk can look a lot different from what we've been led to believe by sensationalist news reports and other fear-mongering. The best way to protect our kids is to have a clear picture of the facts about online predators.

How scared should we be about online predators?

Let's be clear: Kids are harassed online. As many as one in seven has experienced an unwanted sexual solicitation, according to University of New Hampshire's Youth Internet Safety Survey. But the reality is way more complicated, and not so much scary as sad. It's also important to know that when an incident happens, it's magnified. There's nothing media loves more than catching a predator. When it happens, the story is picked up by multiple news outlets. Everyone knows parents are scared about this, so the coverage is intense and widespread, and ends up seeming more common than it is.

Here's what the research says:

Kids are more likely to get harassed by other kids. Sending unsolicited, inappropriate photos, asking for sexual favors, and other unwelcome interactions often come from peers.

When kids are harassed, they know who it is. Just as in real life, predators pursue people they know.

Most online sexual predators aren't looking for little kids. They usually target adolescents, admit their age, and talk openly about sex.

Victims fit a profile. Kids who experience online harassment find it in the places you might expect: sexually oriented social media like dating, livestreaming, and certain chatting apps where visitors talk openly about sex. Victims are typically in some kind of crisis and are vulnerable. They may feel marginalized in the real world, may be questioning or exploring their sexual identity—and they may have posted sexual content themselves.

How can I make sure my kid is safe?

From the time our kids are little, we tell them not to talk to strangers. But in the real world, we put qualifiers on that rule all the time: "If you get lost in a store, ask for the manager." "Help the elderly cross the street." "Order your own lemonade!" In other words, we teach them to trust their gut, be assertive, and take care of themselves. And that's the same thing we need to teach them about being online.

But it's unrealistic to expect kids to never talk to strangers online. We also can't underestimate how much they already know about online creeps and how to avoid or ignore them. They've been navigating this online world far longer than we have. You gotta give them a little credit! To really protect our kids, we need to shift the focus to what really works: staying on top of what they're doing online by checking in—and really listening; helping them to establish healthy boundaries for themselves; and finally, talking about their personal safety.

A three-part plan:

Stay on top of kids' online lives. Be genuinely curious.

  • Ask them which apps, games, and other tech they use. Find out what they like about them, what they don't like, and what they would change if they could.
  • If they're on social media, friend or follow them. If you get pushback, offer not to comment and promise you won't judge. (If all else fails, enlist friends, relatives, or older siblings to keep an eye on their activity.)
  • Find out how they chat: Is it through an app or through their phone's SMS texting? If they're using an app, it won't be easy for you to see it without logging in to their account. If they're new to social media or you suspect a problem, initiate spot checks in exchange for allowing them to use their devices and accounts.

Help them set healthy boundaries and use privacy settings. Start with strict rules when kids are new to phones and social media. You can ease off later.

  • Set rules about times and places for device use. For example, banning phones and tablets from bedrooms.
  • Make rules around who they can chat with. For instance, friends of friends might be OK, but that's as far as they can go.
  • Empower them. Discuss what they should do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable. Make sure they know how to block and report people who engage in inappropriate conversations. If they don't, walk through the steps together.
  • Review the privacy settings for the apps they use. Help them enable the safest ones, such as setting their Instagram to private, to prevent unwanted contact or negative attention.

Talk about personal safety—and their responsibility in protecting it. Let's face it: Kids can get a little bolder online. They may experiment with Snapchat filters like the "sexy puppy" (yup, gross) or dance crazy in a TikTok video. If they receive suggestive comments, they may not know how to respond. Guiding them (delicately!) through the do's and don'ts is an important parenting move and one that will make them less susceptible to online sexual predators. Here are some ideas and tips to work into conversation:

  • "Exploring your identity can be thrilling—and scary. Remember that the persona you create online through your photos, videos, comments, and other aspects of your digital footprint could attract attention for things you didn't anticipate. If you get in too deep, you can always report or block someone, and please let me know if something has gone too far."
  • "You can stop any interaction at any time. Even if you started chatting with someone online, you can stop it whenever you want to. Never feel pressured to keep something going if you've decided you're not into it or—especially—if it begins to feel weird."
  • "Know the signs of creeps. Hopefully, you'll never encounter anyone with bad motives online. But it's good to know what to watch for."

Here are 10 sexual predator red flags:

  1. Keeping it secret. "Don't tell anyone about our conversation."
  2. Not wanting to be traced. "Let's move this conversation to a chat room I like."
  3. Threatening. "If you don't send me nudes, I'll tell all your friends something really bad about you."
  4. Exploiting a weakness. "If you don't send me more nudes, I'll share everything you already sent me with your parents."
  5. Trying to control others. "You can't cut me off now. You started this!"
  6. Invading your space. "Since you blocked me on Insta, I'm friending you on Snap. I like you too much to stay away."
  7. Lying. "I've never done this before."
  8. Setting themselves apart. "You've got me all wrong; I'm not like other people."
  9. Manipulating. "What's your Venmo? I just want to send you an early birthday present."
  10. Being abusive. "You're bad, and when I'm done with you, everyone will know it."

What to do if it happens to your kid:

  1. Your first move is to make sure your kid is safe; consequences can come later. Support them emotionally and try to understand what led up to the problem. You both may need professional help.
  2. Block and report the predator. If the predator is still connected to your kid's friends, it might be a good idea for your kid to unfriend or unfollow those kids until the situation is in hand. If there's a chance other kids could be in danger, work with your kid to make a plan to contact them or their parents.
  3. Save all evidence: Check your kid's browser history, get your kid's cellphone history from your provider, search their email.
  4. Make sure your kid's social media profiles are all private; consider suspending them temporarily.
  5. If the predator solicited sex, sent inappropriate photos, asked for inappropriate photos, or made any threats, it's possible a crime was committed and you may need to contact law enforcement.

Has someone ever made inappropriate contact with your kid?

If you don't know, ask. Just talking about the issue gives you a chance to share your perspective, get your kid's input, and remind them you love them no matter what. It really is a complex issue, with deeper roots than what appears at the surface.

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at Walmart.com, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.