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Protect children from online sexual predators

Updated: May 10, 2023

While children have access to helpful resources and information online, parents must remember children can be vulnerable to sexual predators. Parents must learn how an abuser can reach children online and take steps to protect them.

Investigator James Sherrill, with the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department, and Joyce Prusak, executive director of Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center, urge parents to learn how abusers can reach children online and to take steps to protect children.

“Unfortunately, the digital world offers opportunities for perpetrators to connect with children, and connection is often what children of all ages seek online,” said Joyce Prusak, executive director of Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center. “Perpetrators spend significant time and effort to gain the trust of children both in person and online. Sometimes children and adolescents are curious about sexuality, and that’s normal. But offenders try to exploit that curiosity and take advantage of this interest and children’s vulnerabilities. The offenders can be persistent and clever, and children don’t realize they are being manipulated and don’t understand the potential dangers.”

Signs indicating children might be at risk

Based on actual investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has prepared the following information to help parents recognize signs and minimize risks for children.

  • Spending long periods of time online: If your children spend a long time online, particularly if they feel lonely, they may be more vulnerable to online sex offenders. Children go online to chat with friends, make new friends, pass time, and sometimes look for sexually explicit information. Parents need to monitor the amount of time spent online. Children are at the highest risk at night time. While offenders are always online, most of them work during the day and try to find children online and lure them in the evening hours.

  • Pornography on your child’s computer: Offenders often use pornography in the process of victimizing children. Abusers show pornographic images to children to initiate talks about sex and to lure children. Abusers also may try to convince children that sex between a child and adult is “normal.”

  • Receiving calls: If your child receives calls from men you don’t know and if you see numbers you don’t recognize, that may be a cause for concern. In addition to communicating online, many offenders would try to have phone conversations. They would want to engage in “phone sex” and seek to actually meet the child. Even if children are hesitant to give their phone number, offenders might provide theirs, and then the phone number of the child will be visible to the offender through Caller ID. Some offenders have toll-free 800 numbers, so children can call them without their parents finding out, and some offenders would tell the child to call collect. In each case, offenders are able to find out the child's phone number. Also, calls can happen from various social media apps avoiding giving out numbers.

  • Receiving gifts: Offenders may send gifts to their potential victims as a way to seduce them. The FBI has investigated cases in which abusers have even provided plane tickets to children so they can travel and meet.

  • Turning off or changing the screen on the monitor when you approach: If your child turns the computer off quickly or changes the screen on the monitor when you approach, it may be a sign your child is talking with an offender. Children will not want you to see pornographic images and sexually explicit conversations or even want you to know they are talking to others online.

  • Withdrawn from family: If your child becomes withdrawn from the family, it may be because the offender is trying to distance the child from the family so they can exploit their potential victim. Being distanced might also be a sign of sexual exploitation after it has occurred.

  • Using someone else’s account: Children might be using an account belonging to someone else to connect with an offender. Even if you don’t have internet at home, keep in mind that your child may chat with an abuser while at someone else’s house or at the library.

If you suspect

If you suspect your child has been contacted by a sex offender, talk openly about your suspicions. Review your child’s devices for pornographic images or chats. Ask someone who’s knowledgeable to help you, if that’s necessary. Use the Caller ID service to find out who has called your child. Monitor your child’s access to chatrooms, instant messages, social media apps and emails.

Contact law enforcement immediately

Immediately contact local law enforcement, FBI or National Center for Missing and Exploited Children if: your child or anyone in your household has received child pornography; your child has been sexually solicited by someone who knows your child is under 18; or your child has received sexually explicit images by someone who knows your child is under 18.

Keep your computer turned off to preserve any evidence for law enforcement.

Minimize risks

Having open conversations with your children can help to keep them safe. Talk with your child about potential online dangers. Ask your children to show you the games they play and sites they visit, and spend time together online. Keep the computer your child is using in a common area, so the screen will be visible to you or another family member. Utilize parental controls, but don’t rely on them. Maintain access to your children’s online account and randomly check their communications. Teach your children to use online resources in a responsible way. Your children can encounter an online sexual predator at a place they visit, such as the library, school or their friend’s home. Find out what online safeguards are utilized in these places.

“Be honest with your children and tell them you must take these steps because you’re trying to protect them,” Prusak said. “Also, you must understand that even if your child was a participant in any form of sexual exploitation, it’s never your child’s fault – the offenders bears the full responsibility.”

It's vital to let your children know they can talk with you if they've already shared information.

What to teach your children

Teaching your children to avoid and recognize dangers of online sexual exploitation will help them stay safe. Let your children know they can talk with you if they've already shared information.

Teach your children to:

  • never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online;

  • never share pictures of themselves online with someone they do not personally know;

  • never share identifying information, such as their name, address, name of school, sports team or telephone number;

  • never download pictures from an unknown source because those images could be sexually explicit;

  • never respond to messages or posts that are suggestive, obscene or harassing;

  • never believe everything they’re told online;

  • reiterate they can talk with you if they've already shared information.

This information was compiled with resources from the FBI.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has cyber tipline to report any instances of suspected sexual exploitation of children online. Calls can be made to 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) or visit Reports should also be made to the child abuse reporting hotline in Tennessee, 877-237-0004. Remember, in Tennessee, it is the law that any suspected child abuse must be reported.

For more information about child abuse prevention, follow Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center on social media and explore Coffee County CAC provides services for children who have experienced severe abuse. The center’s programs and services include family advocacy, forensic interviews, prevention education, therapy and medical exams. All services are free for children and their families.

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