Special Agent Dan Johns has seen it all.
After 15 years in the FBI, 10 of them dedicated to working with crimes against children, Johns has no shortage of horror stories related to child victimization, many of which occurred on the internet.
Johns gave a public presentation about keeping children safe on the internet Thursday night at Saint Patrick Church in Carlisle. His topics included social media, internet predators, gaming and sextortion. He shared his own workplace encounters with victimization, tactics predators use and rules parents can enforce to keep their children safer on the internet.
“Developing a culture of safety on the internet is kind of paramount because there are people out there who are targeting these children,” Johns said.
He said the FBI has seen a spike in NCMEC Cybertips (used to report the online exploitation of children) in recent years and attributes a portion of that spike to the COVID-19 pandemic with the “vast majority” of victimization occurring on phones.
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“Our goal is to tell our kids that there are people out there that do this,” Johns said. “This happens, this exists, and we have to know it happens.”
Johns said offenders are very good at what they do, and shared a quote on the board that he heard from a man who had spent a lifetime targeting children on the internet. The quote read, “Given enough time, I will get any kid to send me nudes.”
He said predators look for a quick in with children and a quick breakdown. One way they do this is by utilizing multiple personas online. Johns said they may first appear as an overtly creepy old man just to see if the child will communicate with them. If the child does, that child might continue talking to less creepy personas.
More sophisticated offenders will create loop videos to make it appear as though the child is communicating with another child, Johns said. Some will even memorize the video timing and script.
He said predators will also side with children against the child’s parents, isolating them. They’ll also use one victim to victimize another, and often invoke shame in the children to keep them from speaking up.
Johns said he’s seen all these approaches and more through his time undercover.
“These individuals absolutely would have broken me down … because their tactics are so effective,” he said.
Johns then turned his attention to what parents can do with these understandings.
“Our goal as parents is to harden our children to be a slightly harder target,” he said.
Predators will draw children from mainstream communication sites with safety measures to less popular sites with less security. They want the child to stick around on the online platform that the offender brought them to, Johns said, and if parents can get their children to leave, predators will often not pursue the child and instead search for another “easy target.”
Johns outlined several rules that he recommended parents enforce for the safety of their children on the internet.
He recommended that parents don’t allow their children to use apps they don’t understand, as these are likely newer apps with less safety measures. He also said parents could allow their child to select and utilize just one social media app that they, the parent, could monitor and limit.
“The more time they spend on [social media] the more likely they are to be victimized,” John’s said.
He also said that online friends should be people the child knows in person (and not just virtually) and that children shouldn’t ever leave one site to talk with somebody on another.
“If someone is trying to get you to another platform, there’s usually a reason for that. … It’s definitely not going to benefit the child,” he said.
Another consideration for parents would be the prohibition of phone in bedrooms and bathrooms, as Johns said that’s where victimization mostly occurs. He said predators often don’t care if the parents are home while speaking with the child.
Johns said perhaps one of the most important things to instill in children is kindness.
“We want our kids to model kindness and how do they model kindness? From us,” he said. “If kids were kinder to each other there would be less vulnerable victims present.”
“The less vulnerable kids are, the less victims we have,” Johns said.
Maddie Seiler is a news reporter for The Sentinel and cumberlink.com covering Carlisle and Newville. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at: @SeilerMadalyn