We lock our doors at night to keep our children safe. Some of us set our home alarms. After all, there is nothing more important than protecting our children. But when your children go online, their door is open to the world and the world to them. Sadly, individuals who prey on children and teens can be “friending” them on the social media sites they use. Most social media and gaming sites, such as Snapchat, Whisper, Discord, and TikTok, can be used — safely — to communicate with friends and family, play games and send innocent photos and messages. Unfortunately, everything has a dark side. Children and teens are becoming the victims of online sextortion.
We know in our hearts that our children and grandchildren are innocent and are not looking for trouble. Sadly, there are individuals who are creating false images and identities to lure children and teens into friending, liking, or gaming with them.
Ian Pisarchuk, 27, of Bensalem, did just that. He pleaded guilty to charges that he sexually extorted 15 young victims and was sentenced last week to 20-51 years in state prison.
Predators know how to attract and target young people — building trust with our innocent kids and then stalking and luring them into sending explicit photos/videos. Some offer money and gifts. Others threaten girls and boys, stating they will send the pictures to parents, friends, and school. In one case, the perpetrator threatened to kill the child’s pet. The FBI and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children have reported skyrocketing numbers of sextortion cases being reported — some jurisdictions are reporting up to a 400% increase over the last year.
What can you do? How do we balance the value of learning, creativity and staying connected to friends and family through social media, with risks ranging from cyberbullying to sextortion?
The best way to keep your child safe is through education, open communication and believing your child.
Educate yourself. Enroll in a workshop through NOVA. Read about social media on credible sites such as the FBI or the NCMEC (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children). Don’t assume, as the parent, that you know everything about social media — you don’t. Social media and gaming sites are continually changing. Additionally, while predatory sextortion has increased, it is important to know that is the predator is not always a stranger.
Communicate. Keep the communication open and honest, and the dialogue calm. Listen. Talk about and model how people should treat each other online. Talk about the risks of sharing personal information like one’s address when they do post photos with friends. Today, the number of “likes” and “hits” on social media has become a popularity contest among kids and teens. Ask any preteen why they are constantly posting silly images of themselves, and they will tell you that they have to get their “views” up. Encourage your kids only to accept likes if they know the person offline and have confirmed they know them.
Believe Your Children. Tell your children they can always come to you. When they do, don’t judge them. If they tell you something about themselves or a friend they have who may be at risk for exploitation or other harm, believe them. As hard as it may be, don’t punish them. They need you more than ever. Just like you lock the doors and set the alarm at night, do everything you can to keep them safe online.
If you have questions or concerns about online safety or would like more information on training, call the NOVA helpline at 1-800-675-6900.
If you suspect a child is being exploited, or they are the victim of a crime, report it. Contact your local police department, or call 1-800-CALL-FBI. Online tips can be reported at tips.fbi.gov.
Contact the Bucks County District Attorney’s office at 215-348-6354 or via bucksda.org to submit a crime tip. If you are experiencing a criminal emergency, please call 911 immediately.
Penny Ettinger is the executive director of NOVA, the Warwick-based agency that provides counseling, advocacy and other programming for crime victims in Bucks County. Matthew Weintraub is district attorney for the County of Bucks.