As an expert in family-friendly digital technology, Tonda Sellers knows the dangers of online predators. She’s seen the ways online platforms and apps can be beneficial, but she’s also keenly aware that those same tools can provide a gateway for predators to reach children.
As a mother, she’s always been hypervigilant about what platforms her children were using online. She made sure she knew exactly what games they were playing and exactly with whom they were communicating. Multiplayer platforms were forbidden.
MORE FROM CLAIRE GOODMAN: Two years ago she was held captive by sex traffickers. Now she’s a member of the U.S. Advisory Council.
A potential online predator gained access to her child anyway.
Like many parents, Sellers relaxed her restrictions regarding her childrens’ online activities because of the social isolation of COVID-19. Her children missed their friends, and the only possible forms of social interaction came from online platforms.
“I feel like they’re already doing distance learning, and they have to learn all the time,” Sellers said. “So I want them to have something that is just pure entertainment with their friends. And that’s why I let him do that.”
As classroom learning went online, Sellers’ son started asking to play games with his friends. After their online instruction each day, Sellers said, her son would play a game online with his classmates. As a result, Sellers thought the game platform went through the school.
ON HOUSTONCHRONICLE.COM: Readjusted model forecasts thousands of additional COVID-19 deaths in Texas
“I honestly thought that it came from the school portal because we have them locked into computers through a gmail account from school,” Sellers said. “So in my head, that meant that it was all protected sites they were accessing.”
Even though it wasn’t a protected site, Sellers’ son only played the game on a closed platform with his classmates. That is, until one of the children invited an unknown adult into the game.
At that moment, an online game between five 10-year-old boys was infiltrated by a man in his early 30s. None of the boys knew the man, but the child who invited him to the group met him through a chat on YouTube.
MORNING REPORT: Get the top stories on HoustonChronicle.com sent directly to your inbox
Another parent found out about the strange man in the chat before any harm was done to the children, but Sellers was shaken by the incident.
“It’s terrifying,” Sellers said. “I am so careful with online safety, and someone still managed to get access to my kid.”
Bruce Moats is a cybercrime investigator for the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office. Moats is dedicated to hunting down online predators and bringing them to justice. According to Moats, his office is seeing more activity from online predators than ever before.
“With COVID-19, these sexual predators are out of work or maybe working from home. Now they have even more time to devote to looking for kids on the internet,” Moats explained. “Then add to that the fact that kids are online all the time and parents are distracted, trying to work at their jobs. There’s been a significant uptick in online exploitation of children.”
Even the most vigilant parents like Sellers are more likely to let their guards down out of sympathy for their children, which compounds the problem.
“Children are so isolated right now with the crisis going on, and parents are desperate to help them find some form of social interaction,” Moats said. “And that’s exactly what predators are looking for.”
KNOW THE SIGNS: Childproof America: Smartphones a ‘gateway’ for predators
Kelly Litvak, president of ChildProof America, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to safeguarding families from sex traffickers and online predators, has witnessed a similar phenomenon.
“Parents are stressed right now,” Litvak said. “They’re trying to keep their kids moving forward with homeschooling in between Zoom calls and conference calls. They still have to bring in income even when their kids are home.”
Litvak, too, has observed more online predation since the COVID-19 pandemic. “Predators are home. They’re bored. They’re looking for stimulation. And kids are online more than ever,” she noted.
After Sellers’ close call, she began using her tech expertise to find an online platform with ironclad protection against outsiders. To her dismay, she didn’t find any. “All it takes is one child giving the access codes to an adult, and all the children are exposed,” she said.
Sellers’ assessment is correct, Litvak noted. In all her experience with online platforms, Litvak has never found a platform that can’t be penetrated somehow. It’s no reason to panic, she said, but it does illustrate why parental supervision is more important than ever.
“The last thing parents need right now is another thing to be fearful of with everything that’s going on, but this highlights that, as parents, we just can’t assume anything is safe,” she said.
Moats believes children can use devices safely, but only if parents are committed to monitoring their childrens’ online activity. “Kids are social creatures, and we certainly don’t want to deprive them of their friends any more than they already are, but to keep them safe, it takes a lot of work on the parents’ part, unfortunately,” he said.
Moats noted that vigilance doesn’t necessarily mean constantly staring at a child’s screen while they use the device.
“My advice – if your child is interested in a game or app, just sit down with them and watch them play. Ask if you can play, too. You’ll learn more about an online platform by playing it yourself than you will from asking your kid to explain it,” said Moats. “You’ll be able to figure out pretty quickly whether or not it’s safe.”
Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Constable Wayne Thompson expressed sympathy for parents during this challenging time, but he was emphatic that parents take this increased threat seriously.
Thompson, who has led multiple task forces against human trafficking and online sexual exploitation, has seen the devastation left in the wake of cyber sex crimes.
“The scary truth is, online predators are more active than ever right now,” Thompson said. “And as hard as it is for parents – and I know it’s really, really hard, given everything that’s going on – we have to be vigilant now. Because this is an evil you can’t take back. If someone sexually assaults a child, it can’t be undone. We need to protect them before it comes to that.”