Don’t be a Noob — Talk to Boys About Online Safety
By Mitchell Kuhlman, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and it’s an important time to talk about the online exploitation of children. Today, children are spending more time on the internet. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a dramatic increase in reports of online exploitation. In 2020 alone, reports of online enticement to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC)’s CyberTipline grew by 97.5% compared to 2019. Online video games have been very popular for years and are especially popular now. Because of social distancing precautions, more and more children (especially boys) are playing online video games for entertainment and to socialize with friends.
When it comes to video games, parents are often worried about how violent a game is and how that might negatively affect their children. Online sexual exploitation using gaming platforms is often not at the top of their list of concerns. If you’re a “noob” or someone new to online gaming, it is important to know that these video games are not like what you might have played as a young person — they have become more than just games, but also a tool to connect with friends and meet new people. Using built-in chat features on consoles like Xbox and PlayStation, young children can connect through the game itself and on sites like Discord and Twitch. Several games feature “lobbies” for players to converse before beginning game play. In this context, it is common to develop relationships with strangers.
The anonymity of these gaming platforms’ online interfaces increases the risk of sexual exploitation, and boys are particularly vulnerable. According to Pew Research Center, players of online video games are disproportionately boys, with 97% of teen males playing video games on some device. Though most people who play online games have positive experiences, as with any platform that allows communication with others, there is the possibility for online sexual exploitation. For example, competitive team-centric shootout style games with a shared objective to achieve victory are particularly popular right now. Perpetrators target and groom children by building camaraderie as a teammate to learn personal details in a way that is unique to gaming platforms, and then use this information and trust to sexually exploit the child.
In Season 2 of NCMEC’s animated online safety adventure series, Into the Cloud, the main character (Zion) is live streaming on his gaming channel and some of his followers dare him to moon the camera. Thinking it would be funny, he does. Later, another user contacts Zion and says that they have a screen capture of Zion showing his bottom and threatens to send it to all his friends/followers. This storyline example of online exploitation was developed in response to reports of children, particularly boys, being targeted on gaming platforms and to meet the need for resources to teach young children about this risk. Much of the conversation and research on online exploitation is focused on women and young girls, while boys are often overlooked as potential victims. With boys spending so much time online and the potential for unmonitored interactions, we need to talk about it.
Start the conversation and do some research. Talking about online sexual exploitation can be hard, so NCMEC developed resources to help! NCMEC offers a variety of tools to help jumpstart talking to your children about online safety and signs of potential online exploitation. Parental involvement is critical when it comes to helping children game more safely. Take an active interest in the games that your child plays and wants to buy — that means talking to them about it and doing a little research on the game’s rating, game-play style, content, and age-appropriateness.
Teach online safety skills. Into the Cloud, NCMEC’s animated online safety adventure series presents important safety information in an age-appropriate and entertaining manner for children 10 and younger. To start a dialogue with your child, each episode has a corresponding discussion guide that can be used in one-on-one and small group settings. You can find more resources to teach children of all ages online safety skills by visiting www.missingkids.org/netsmartz.
Report. If you suspect sexual exploitation of a child, even if you’re not sure, report it to the CyberTipline. NCMEC’s CyberTipline® is a centralized reporting system for online exploitation of children. NCMEC staff add value to each tip and then make the report available to the appropriate law enforcement agency for possible investigation.
To make a CyberTipline Report, visit report.cybertip.org.
Mitchell Kuhlman is responsible for enhancing the capacity of prevention programming by providing direct project support to expand the breadth and depth of NCMEC’s prevention program content and strategies alongside project facilitation and process management for prevention activities. Prior to joining NCMEC, Mitchell served as the Policy and Communications Associate for Zero Abuse Project, where he was responsible for researching and tracking federal and state legislation while acting as the strategic communications liaison between the organization, its programs, stakeholders, and the public.