As we all attempt to stay virtually connected to friends, family, and loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves online far more than usual. Unfortunately, this spike in online activity means a spike in online predators seeking to cause harm to us or our children. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCoSE) has reported seeing a rise in everything from online phishing attempts through emails, to pornography use, to predators targeting children with messages on social media apps and video games
Jake Roberson, Director of Communications for NCoSE, has some suggestions for how we can safely use the Internet across all our devices now and in the future, and he joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Mattersradio show and podcast.
“For us as individuals and as families, it’s important to take a digital inventory,” says Roberson, “and look at what are the devices that each of us likes to use, what are the platforms and the apps that each of us like to use, and what are the vulnerabilities in each of those because it’s going to be different for all of them.”
“For parents in particular, this does take work,” continues Roberson, “this does take effort. We have to follow up with our kids and talk through their habits, not just for their safety, but also for a healthy balance.”
“I think there’s a silver lining for us as parents in this, in that one of the best ways that we can help protect our kids is being somebody who wants to connect with our kids […] As our kids are feeling connected with us as their parents in the real world, that’s going to help them be less vulnerable to try to get that and seek that out elsewhere, and more likely to talk to us if they do encounter it.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Jake Roberson give resources for parents and individuals to use the Internet safely and wisely.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As America has embraced social distancing, adults and children are spending more time on screens for work, learning and pleasure. While technology can be a great gift and play an important role in helping us through situations like this, there are also some real risks associated with so many more people—good people and bad people—spending so much more time plugged in to their screens and the Internet. This is especially the case for children.
Jake Roberson, Director of Communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, joins us today to talk about how people can help ensure their families stay safe while spending so much more time online. Their website endsexualexploitation.org is a great place to start.
Jake Roberson, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
JAKE ROBERSON: Thanks for having me on.
TRACI GRIGGS: All right, so what do we know about the connection, if any, between how much time people spend online, whether a computer, phone or TV, and the likelihood that they’re going to encounter problematic material of some kind?
JAKE ROBERSON: It’s similar to anything in life where we spend more time engaging in a certain activity, we’re opening ourselves up to more risk. We certainly accept those risks in many different ways, whether that’s driving our cars or using our online devices. We sort of have this understanding that the more time I’m spending on these devices, the more potential there is for problem.
TRACI GRIGGS: Do you think the scammers or the exploiters are taking more advantage? Do you get the sense that they’re ramping up because of what’s going on?
JAKE ROBERSON: Absolutely. Of course we know this happens all the time, in general. However, what we have seen is an increase in attempts because they know that children in particular are going to be spending more time online while at home and not at school. And we’re seeing that in everything, from increased phishing attempts in our emails where maybe they’re pretending to be Netflix or Apple and trying to get people’s credentials and or plant virus, or for children, people targeting children, messaging them on social media apps or on video games, things of that nature.
TRACI GRIGGS: So what would you recommend is the first step for us to take, to be sure our family can safely use media and Internet while we’re all home?
JAKE ROBERSON: Yeah, if you haven’t already, it’s really important to get some hardware and software in place for your home’s Internet and connected devices. Whether that’s something like a Circle device that you can install and connect to your home Internet that gives you the ability to set screen time limits, or block certain types of sites and apps, or apps like Covenant Eyes that helped with Internet filtering and screen accountability. There’s a lot of different options available, but making sure that you’ve got those installed, in likely both hardware and software, is a really helpful first-step for anybody, but parents and families in particular.
TRACI GRIGGS: Do we first have to overcome this idea that somehow our children deserve a lot of privacy as far as what they’re doing online?
JAKE ROBERSON: Oh definitely, and one of the ways we can start that conversation with our kids is helping them to understand, and maybe even ourselves because maybe we don’t understand, how little privacy we already have online. And once we understand that our digital footprint is a real thing, that we have very little privacy in the way we interact online just due to the companies and platforms that we’re interacting with, and all the different types of data tracking that they have. Once we start to understand that, and we can explain that to our children and help them understand that, “Hey, privacy is not guaranteed on these mediums and we’re here to help protect you, we’re here to help you not get exploited by that lack of privacy. And so there’s going to be these systems in place that help protect you and help protect us as your parents.”
TRACI GRIGGS: Wow, that’s a really great point. So, if all these other people out there have access to this information, your parents should have access to that as well. Do you think some parents though still have to be convinced that they have the right to do this?
JAKE ROBERSON: Oh, certainly. We have sort of this narrative of autonomy in our culture that in many ways has healthy aspects. But I think when it comes to our family interactions and parenting our children—I’ve got four kids myself—we have to understand that autonomy looks very different with children. And we do that in other respects, in the way they live their physical lives. We set healthy boundaries and rules and limitations and stuff like that for our kids with things like driving or time they spend with their friends. And so really it’s just helping them understand that this is another place where their autonomy comes with rules and limitations, and at age-appropriate levels. You know it’s going to be different for your five-year-old than it is your 10-year-old, and there’s your 15-year-old.
TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned earlier hardware and software solutions for this. Are those ways that parents actually get to see what kind of media their children are being exposed to, or are we just limiting the amount of time?
JAKE ROBERSON: Yeah, it depends on the ones you use, and so I recommend depending on what age your kids are, what kind of devices they have, looking at which of those solutions is going to be best for you. We have several of those listed actually in a blog we wrote on this, at our website endsexualexploitation.org. You can look at sort of some of the filtering services, both software and hardware that we recommend people look into first. Certain ones are only filters and they just block stuff from coming in. Other ones you can give more access to, so parents can see what sort of apps and messages children are exchanging. So, each of us is managing our time online in different ways. And for us as individuals and as families, it’s important to sort of have an inventory, to take a digital inventory, and look at what are the devices that each of us likes to use, what are the platforms and the apps that each of us like to use, and what are the vulnerabilities in each of those because it’s going to be different for all of them. For example, on Instagram, you do have the ability to turn off direct messages from people you’re not friends with so that strangers can’t be direct messaging you and finding you without you already finding them and being friends with them. So that’s a great safety feature to have, but that is not going to be the same on Snapchat or on TikTok. Where on TikTok, even if you set up some of these parental controls and safety features, they’ll disappear after 30 days. They reset and you have to re-install them. So these measures are going to differ depending on the types of devices that each of us, and apps and platforms, each of us are using.
TRACI GRIGGS: Parents just need to be vigilant, don’t they? They don’t need to sit around and go, “Well, oh my kids know about all that stuff and I don’t know how to do it.” I mean, we need to be vigilant.
JAKE ROBERSON: Yeah. This is not a set-it-and-forget-it type of project. Even with hardware and software in place, it’s important that each of us is taking personal responsibility as individuals. But then for parents in particular, this does take work, this does take effort. We have to follow up with our kids and talk through their habits, not just for their safety, but also for a healthy balance. Because as we know, it’s so easy for each of us to kind of get sucked in and consumed. So, during this time when it’s easy to be thinking that, “Well, this is my only option,” we still have to help ourselves and our children, and find a good balance between time spent on screens and time spent in the real world interacting with one another.
TRACI GRIGGS: So, is this your greatest fear then? The risk of predators online?
JAKE ROBERSON: Yeah. Sexual exploitation online, including this online grooming and predation is already on the rise. And we’re seeing more and more stories of children who are being exploited and or abused, and coerced into sex-trafficking, sex abuse, unwanted sexual contact, and coercion offline that started online. They’re being contacted on Instagram, on TikTok, on Snapchat and other platforms, and it’s someone posing as a friend. They’ll take their time and establish trust through these private chats and then they’ll work their way towards exchanging a sexually provocative or explicit images or videos. And then all of a sudden they’ve got blackmail leverage and they’re exploiting kids without them ever having even met in real life. And so as kids are spending more time online, as they’re experimenting with new platform and new tech, this is a significant concern that parents need to be aware of.
TRACI GRIGGS: Some kids seem to be more vulnerable than others. Can we as parents do some things to make our kids less vulnerable? And by that I mean, do we need to be having more conversations? Do we even need to make sure we’re spending good quality time with our kids? Are we, by being too wrapped up in work or whatever, actually making our kids more vulnerable to predators?
JAKE ROBERSON: Possibly, because we know just in general for human beings we’re looking for connection, and that’s true for children the way it is for adults. The less connection, the less interpersonal connection that we’re getting, the more easily and more susceptible we might be to get in that connection in places that we wouldn’t have otherwise. And we see that that’s true across different age groups; the lonelier we are, the less connected we are, the more likely we are to get ourselves into situations where we are vulnerable to people taking advantage of our trust.
It’s an important reminder to us as parents, but I think there’s a silver lining for us as parents in this, in that one of the best ways that we can help protect our kids is being somebody who wants to connect with our kids, who wants to spend time, play games, share activities, share meals with our children. That’s just good advice in general, but it does make a difference. As our kids are feeling connected with us as their parents in the real world, that’s going to help them be less vulnerable to try to get that and seek that out elsewhere, and more likely to talk to us if they do encounter it.
TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s talk a little bit about adults. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about children, but we do know that pornography and even pornography addiction is a huge problem in our country, and even among Christians. So what kind of recommendations do you have for people who know they’ve got a problem with this?
JAKE ROBERSON: The connection thing is still huge for adults who struggle with pornography and addiction of any kind. And there’s a lot of research coming out that the opposite of addiction isn’t necessarily sobriety but connection, and that we use addictions to medicate problems that stem from a lack of connection. And so it is important for us to be intentional about making connections either with the people we live with, or friends and families, doing phone calls and video calls. So that’s one important thing to make sure we maintain and be intentional about if someone’s struggling with addiction and they feel tempted by time online. And then there are again good things out there that help us maintain connection, but also help us avoid temptation. And I mentioned Covenant Eyes earlier, that’s a great tool that they’ve designed for parents and families, but actually specifically also for adults and individuals who want to stay sober from pornography. And so they’ve got Internet filtering as well as screen accountability so that you can set up connections with a real life accountability partners so that they can see what you’re spending your time on, on your device, and help you stay sober. There are resources out there, but we have to be intentional about maintaining connection in addition to those, using those resources and tools, and being proactive and looking for our weaknesses and helping put safeguards in place to help us avoid falling back into that unwanted behavior.
TRACI GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time. Before we go, would you mind please giving our listeners your website and any other resources that they can access to learn more about this?
JAKE ROBERSON: We encourage everyone to go to endsexualexploitation.org. We’ve got a resources tab at the top of our website there for those who are struggling themselves with exploitation or addiction; for those who are the partner or spouse of those, for parents as well. You can find the blogs we’ve written where we recommend steps for helping keep your family safe while they’re spending more time online, as well as hardware and software that you can implement as well. That’s all right there and our website endsexualexploitation.org.
TRACI GRIGGS: So, Jake Robertson with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, thank you so much for joining us on Family Policy Matters.