Module 3: How it Shows in Online Spaces

Summary

Many people use caution when meeting new people. However, when we look at online platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tik Tok, a number of online gaming sites, etc, people’s identities could be faked, exaggerated, and used to gain access to young targets.

Online exploitation can happen in many different ways on many different platforms. Talking to strangers online is normalized, and we often think because we’re in the comforts of our own home, we’re safe. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)  has stated that on any given day there are about 750,000 online predators. Additionally, 50% of those targeted by exploiters are between the age of 12-15 years old. 

In this module, we will cover the different platforms exploiters use to find young people:

  • 3.1 Online gaming
  • 3.2 Social media
  • 3.3 Chat/video specific websites
  • 3.4 Online job ads

3.1 Online gaming

The online gaming world is huge, with tens of millions of adults and children playing at any given time. Online gaming sites, communication platforms, and streaming sites such as Twitch, Discord, YouTube, Mumble, and TeamSpeak, and online games and apps such as Minecraft, Roblox, Fortnight, League of Legends, and other similar games all have chat features where you can talk with anyone, anywhere at any time.

This can be a great way to connect with friends and play games from the comfort of your home; particularly during times when social distancing is encouraged. The online gaming world has created a place where adults, youth, and children can all exist together, and it is a place where building relationships with strangers online is normal. It is really easy to have conversations because many, if not all of these forms of gaming have chat features. Because of its ability to be used by many people, it can create easy access to youth online who may not be aware of the dangers behind the screen. 

The use of online gaming is so prevalent among young people, the exploiter may be forthcoming with the fact that they are an adult because it isn’t as unusual for adults to game with younger people. However, whether they pretend to be a peer or they’re honest about their age, the relationship building starts much the same way; gaining trust. 

Sometimes young people playing on these platforms are offered gift cards or other things that can be redeemed on the site to advance their gaming. The exploiter may ask for pictures or favours in return. It is important to note that not all those who are looking to groom/exploit young people online are older or adults. They can be a peer or someone just a few years older than the youth.

Much like in online grooming on other platforms, isolation occurs when a groomer will try to bring the conversation to a private room, or only directly interact with another gamer. The exploiter may try to steer the conversation to something more personal or sexual. Once a relationship is established isolation can also take place by trying to drive a wedge between the youth and their real life support system.

There has been a number of reports about games designed for children being infiltrated by exploiters and using them to expose children to sexual content. Several incidents of sexually explicit acts being performed on the popular children’s game Roblox. Some parents report their children being invited to private sex rooms, and other parents have seen their children’s avatar being sexualized.

Case Study

In one such case out of the UK, an 18 year old male, Lewis Daynes, had  created an exclusive online gaming club. He had told the six members of the group (whom he had never met) that he had lots of money, was traveling the world, and could offer them lucrative jobs if they dropped out of school. The boys all trusted him. They believed him as he was somewhat of a mentor for them.

Daynes used his position in the club to control and manipulate members by threatening to kick them out of the group. He had built a close friendship with one of the boys, 15 year old Breck Bednar, who he later lured and killed. In this situation, Daynes did not pretend to be anyone else. He lied about what he did for a living and his lifestyle, but he didn’t change his name or his age. Daynes told lies to Breck about Breck’s friends and family and gradually worked to isolate him from his support system.

Breck’s mother intervened several times. She talked with Daynes, she set up meetings with some of the other parents of the boys in the club, and she called the police and reported Daynes before the murder took place. In this case, Daynes worked to isolate Breck by trying to turn him against the people that he loved and trusted by telling him lies about them.

Reflection

  1. Even though Lewis Daynes never lied about who he was, describe the red flags noticed in this case study.

Module 3.2: Social Media

Social media platforms refer to sites, apps, or any forum/public internet space people use to create and share content or direct messages through social networking. Below are a list of popular social media platforms:

  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Tik Tok
  • Reddit 
  • Tumblr
  • Twitter
  • Snapchat

*This is not an exhaustive list. There are always new social media apps and platforms that are being created and shared.

Social media can be a great way to connect, engage, learn, and communicate. It’s validating to post and get a lot of likes. It’s fun to learn more about people that we’ve just become “friends” with, and these spaces are a great way to show off our skills and talents. It’s a great way to pass time. The positives that come from social media are many, however, when we have an open online presence, people from anywhere can find and contact us. Secure privacy settings reduce this common vulnerability, but not all platforms have privacy settings. Online grooming on social media platforms happens initially by the exploiter reaching out in some way to the youth. 

Project Stone Fish

In a study of over 5,000 cases of online grooming, police in Wales and England  found that Instagram has the highest rate of online grooming with 34% of the reports coming from Instagram. An organization called Bark, launched project Stone Fish, where they created a fake online presence for 15 year old “Libby”. “Libby” was actually a 37 year old adult posing as a teen online. The team behind the project created an online presence similar to that of any teen. Once the profile went live, the team behind “Libby” waited to see how long it took for exploitive or inappropriate comments to reach Libby’s profile. Within an hour, she had 7 adult men in her messages, and after 9 days she had over 92 messages from men ranging in severity from sexually explicit conversations, asking for nudes, and making threats. These men all thought she was 15, as her age was prominently posted to her profiles.  

The team decided to do the same thing again, except this time they created “Bailey”, an 11 year old in sixth grade. They took the same adult woman and made her look 11 through various photo editing technology. Once “Bailey’s” presence went live, it took less than 2 minutes for an adult male to inappropriately message her and less than 5 minutes for an adult to video call her. The rate at which adult men were messaging this “11 year old’s” fake profile was astonishing. It took four people to keep up with the flood of messages. Many of the sexually explicit comments came fast before the men even attempted to form any kind of a relationship.

While in this case the messages came from men, that’s not to say that women and youth can’t be online groomers. While it’s seen as a predominantly male crime, women approaching youth online are on the rise. Often it will go undetected or under reported because society sees women as more trustworthy. However, women can and do lure children and youth both on and offline. 

Module 3.3: Chat/Video Specific Websites

Among the most popular sites for this type of activity is Omegle. A website that offers text, voice, and video chatting. Omegle’s slogan is “Talk to Strangers”, which is exactly what you do. While during times of social distancing, this may seem like a good idea (and it can be), it opens the door for online groomers and exploiters.

Omegle recommends that you don’t video chat if you’re under 18, but there are no safety measures in place and the website doesn’t ask any questions about age. Within a few clicks the user can be paired with a stranger engaged in sexually explicit behaviours, such as masturbation or sexual acts with another person. 

While Omegle is currently a popular site for video chatting with strangers, there are many others with different security features. Whether you or a young person you know are using sites like this, it’s important to be aware of the realities of these sites. While the intended purpose is not to expose young people to sexually explicit material, there’s little that can be done to stop it.

*please note that if an online game or communication platform isn’t listed here, it doesn’t mean it can’t or isn’t being used to exploit and groom young people online. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather some of the commonly used platforms, apps, and websites

Module 3.4: Online Job Ads

The idea of having financial freedom to do what we want, or wanting to save up is a completely natural part of growing up. Online exploiters understand the desire for youth to make money which is why they create “too good to be true” ads. While it is legal to start working at the age of 14 in Newfoundland (legal age to work may vary from province to province), there are a number of considerations to take into account when searching for employment. Look through the regulations surrounding hiring young people between the ages of 14-16 and see if the jobs advertising are abiding by these rules.

Sometimes these ads can be designed to lure young people into sexually exploitative situations. Here are some things to look out for:

Rate of pay

  • Is it significantly more than minimum wage? 
  • Does it offer a significant difference in the amount you can make? For example, anywhere from $1,500-$5,000

Company/ business name

  • Is there a company name listed on the job ad? If so, what comes up when you google search it? Is it credible information?
  • Can you find the staff people online? LinkedIn is a great place to check the legitimacy of potential workplaces. 

Skills/experience

  • Does the ad say “no experience necessary” or “will train”? This CAN be common for entry level positions but the rate of pay will reflect the lack of experience. 
  • Does that make sense for the position of the work and compensation being advertised? For example, if a job is advertising a massage position, does it make sense to hire someone who has no experience?

Job advertised

  • Is the job title vague? Or does it seem like a position that someone, let alone a youth, with no skills/experience should be doing? 

Applying

  • Are you applying through text or email (typically a Hotmail or Gmail account)? 
  • Do they want to interview you the same day, or within 24-48 hours?

Here is a helpful graphic from C.A.S.E.Y that can help you identify suspicious looking jobs ads you may come across online.

Activities

  1. Create your own red flag job ad and describe some of the features it may have.
  2. Watch the following video about Project Stone Fish:
    1. When going to online spaces, what are some red flags to look out for when interacting with others?
    2. List some other sites/places that exploiters could target.
    3. Based on this video, what are some ways users can stay safe when going on social media platforms? What can you do if you come across a suspicious person online?