With kids spending more time online this summer and fewer safety nets around, such as camp counselors or teachers who can catch signs of abuse, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren calls it the “perfect storm.”
Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, his office has seen an uptick in cases involving online sexual predators of teens and preteens, a trend reflected in the 126 percent increase in calls last month to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children cyber-tip line.
Warren’s office has launched a social media campaign called “Secure Summer.” It calls on parents to talk to their kids about the dangers that exist online, to review the content, messages and passwords children use on social media platforms and to use parental-control settings.
The number of cases his office prosecutes doesn’t reflect the threat that exists, he said.
“By the time it gets to the prosecutor’s office, we’re at the end of it,” Warren said. “Parents are the first line of defense. ... We’re aggressively investigating and prosecuting, but we don’t want to be seeing these cases.”
Jennifer Johnson, chief of the Hillsborough County state attorney’s special victims unit, said that filing depositions and recording testimonies can be overwhelming for victims. Sometimes they don’t follow through, even though advocates can guide them through and deploy tools such as therapy dogs to ease the process.
“Preteens and teenagers sometimes feel responsible or ashamed for having communicated with these adults,” she said. “They truly are victims, though. They shouldn’t be ashamed.”
Johnson said that what the predators are looking for varies.
“It depends on what (the predator) gets off on, for lack of a better term,” she said. “Some want the communication and are seeing how they can groom the victim. Some want to meet offline.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported an increase in traffickers offering subscription-based services, where buyers who are less willing to meet in person due to the coronavirus can pay for access to images or videos of the victims.
Most cases come to their attention after a parent discovers inappropriate communication, Johnson said, although some come through police sting operations.
Predators use a variety of platforms, from Facebook and Instagram to gaming and avatar platforms such as Twitch and Discord, Johnson said.
Sexual, dating or romantic talk with a stranger or having someone ask for photos should be a red flag, she said. Predators may pretend to be younger than they are.
And sometimes preteens or teens list their ages as older to gain access to online platforms, according to a report from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Grayson Kamm, chief communications officer with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office, said the campaign emphasizes having parents initiate conversations with their kids and being aware of their online activities.
“At some point, the kids realize this has gone to a weird place, and they don’t want to talk to their parents about it,” he said. “But they need to know they’re not going to be in trouble, but their parents need to know.”