As schools across the country let out for summer break, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) reminds families of tools available through Project iGuardian to keep children safe while using the internet.
“Parents are the best defense in keeping their children safer online,” said Erin Burke, unit chief, Child Exploitation Investigations Unit (CEIU). “Parents should have regular conversations with their children about practicing online safety, how to recognize potential hazards and to encourage their children to share if someone makes them feel uncomfortable online. It is important for parents to know that online exploitation comes in many forms, and stopping exploitation often requires the victim to come forward to someone they trust – typically a parent, teacher, or trusted adult, or sometimes law enforcement.”
Time away from school and normal routines during the summer months could translate to children spending significantly more time online. Kids often have higher internet use and screen time, using more social media, gaming platforms and other online applications than usual during school breaks, which can inadvertently expose them to online predators. Increased online activity means children are at greater risk of encountering cyber predators who know how to exploit their vulnerabilities.
Online child exploitation may not be easily recognized, especially by younger children. Predators often attempt to make casual contact with children through messaging applications, social media, games, and other online platforms to gain their trust and introduce sexual conversations that become more explicit over time. This type of abusive online interaction can progress to include the exchange of illicit images and can lead to meeting the child in person. Sometimes predators may coerce victims into providing sexually explicit images and videos of themselves, often in compliance with the offender’s threats of exposing images of the victim to friends, families, and others. This is typically referred to as ‘sextortion.’
Project iGuardian focuses on keeping children and teens safer from online predators through education and awareness. The project is an outreach effort to share information about the dangers of online environments, how to stay safer online, and how to report abuse and suspicious activity. Project iGuardian helps children, teens and parents learn more about staying safe from online sexual predators.
Parents and guardians can also help educate and protect children online by doing the following:
- Review and approve games and apps before they are downloaded
- Make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible for online gaming systems and electronic devices
- Monitor your child’s use of the internet; keep electronic devices in an open, common room of the house
- Check your children’s profiles and what they post online
- Explain to your children that images posted online will be permanently on the internet
- Make sure children know that anyone who asks a child to engage in sexually explicit activity online should be reported to a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult, as well as law enforcement
- Have regular conversations to ensure kids are practicing online safety and ensuring they know they can disclose if someone makes them feel uncomfortable online
- Understand a laptop, a phone, or other internet-connected device could lead their children into a world where they may be at risk. This is particularly true with apps providing messaging, photo, or video sharing capabilities; in chat rooms; and on gaming platforms
The CEIU maintains a close working relationship with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the fight against child exploitation. Its partners at the NCMEC have created the NetSmartz educational outreach program which features information and resources tailored specifically to youth age groups and how to talk to your kids.
In fiscal year 2021, the number of children rescued and/or identified from instances of child exploitation grew to 1,177, compared to 1,012 in 2020. HSI also saw increases in the number of case-initiated indictments and convictions during the last fiscal year. Since 2013, HSI has rescued and/or identified over 6,500 child victims, thanks in part to initiatives like Project iGuardian.
To report suspicious activity or instances of child sexual exploitation, contact your local law enforcement agency. Tips can also be submitted online to the Tip Line or by phone at 866-347-2423, or by contacting your local HSI office. Reports can also be filed with the NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST or online at cybertipline.org.
If a parent discovers that their child has been exploited or extorted, please contact NCMEC for a wide range of support services for victims and their families, such as crisis intervention, emotional support, referrals to appropriate community agencies and mental health professionals, peer connection, and reunification assistance.