Parenting

Minecraft And Fortnite Are Breeding Grounds For Online Predators

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My son is a major gamer. Not only does he spend every free second he has playing video games, but they have become a major way for him to socialize. I used to roll my eyes every time I’d find him stuck in his room playing Minecraft, but over the past few months, I’ve realized that this is how he hangs out with his friends.

Back in the day, I would sit on the floor with a long corded phone wrapped around me chatting away with my friends, but I guess things just look different these days. I’ll walk past my son’s room, and I’ll hear him live-chatting with his friends as they build whatever the heck it is you build in Minecraft. I hear them laughing, making inside jokes, and even making off-handed remarks about school, life, family, you name it.

I decided a few months ago to make peace with this. Yes, the kid plays too many video games, but if this is how he bonds with his friends, then so be it. It can’t hurt, right?

Everything was hunky-dory until a few weeks ago when I ran across a bombshell expose in The New York Times about video games and online sexual predators. I was lying in bed on a Saturday night scrolling through my phone, and this article stopped me in my tracks. As I began reading it, I felt like I was going to throw up.

The article explained that it’s not just social media sites like Instagram and Tik Tok that have become favored places for sexual predators to hang out and coerce kids into sending nudes and engaging in other horrifying behavior. But video games, video game chat rooms, and other apps and services are crawling with this sort of thing.

As The Times describes it, sexual predators meet tweens, teens, and even younger kids in the in-game chats, or on outside chatting apps where players commonly connect while gaming (like Discord, which my son and his friends are on all the time). They pose as other young gamers. Often kids assume they are someone they know—a friend of a friend, maybe—and they slowly build the trust of those around them.

“The criminals strike up a conversation and gradually build trust,” The Times reports. “Often they pose as children, confiding in their victims with false stories of hardship or self-loathing. Their goal, typically, is to dupe children into sharing sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves — which they use as blackmail for more imagery, much of it increasingly graphic and violent.”

It’s called “sextortion” and it gets ugly, fast. The predators weave their way into your kids’ reality, gradually and seamlessly grooming your child, desensitizing them to sexual imagery and sexual language, and then hoping for sexually explicit pictures and videos that they can then blackmail you with.

“The first threat is, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m going to post on social media, and by the way, I’ve got a list of your family members and I’m going to send it all to them,’” Matt Wright, with the Department of Homeland Security, told The Times. “If they don’t send another picture, they’ll say: ‘Here’s your address — I know where you live. I’m going to come kill your family.’”

This. Is. Terrifying.

The U.S. government reports that sextortion crimes have been increasing exponentially, with huge spikes in the past few years. There were an average of about 50 reported crimes six years ago. Last year, however, the number of reported crimes jumped to 1500—and authorities believe there are many more cases that simply do not get reported.

The gaming platforms and apps mentioned in the article include Minecraft, Fortnite, Discord, Twitch, Steam, Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Skype. But it doesn’t just stop there. Virtually every platform kids use these days is at risk. And some of the stories and “chats” shared within the article are downright horrifying. Absolutely stomach-turning and awful.

After I read all of this in utter disgust, my first thought was, “OK, so what on earth can I do to make sure nothing like this happens to my kids?”

And yes, much of the onus here seems to rest on parents’ shoulders. As The Times, explains, while the gaming platforms and various apps all periodically make public statements saying that inappropriate and unlawful activity is absolutely banned, it seems they can do little to stop it.

“There are tools to detect previously identified abuse content, but scanning for new images — like those extorted in real time from young gamers — is more difficult,” says The Times. “While a handful of products have detection systems in place, there is little incentive under the law to tackle the problem as companies are largely not held responsible for illegal content posted on their websites.”

Ugghhhh.

As for me, my initial instinct was to tell my son that video games and electronics were banned completely from now on. But obviously, that is unrealistic, and unlikely to help. As The Times describes it, banning video games and social media usually does nothing but make these platform more enticing to kids, leading to more potentially risky behavior.

So, I did what I usually do with my son. I had a very frank discussion with him. I told him what I’d read. I gave him as much detail about it as possible, including the fact that nude pics and sexual language were involved.

We talked openly about how scary and dangerous this all was and what sort of safeguards he could take to ensure that nothing like this happens to him. We talked about only engaging in a personal manner with people he 100% knows in real life, never sending nudes to anyone ever, and just being mindful about the language and tone his fellow gamers use.

“Don’t ever say anything online that you wouldn’t say in real life,” I said, “And don’t allow others to speak to you that way, either.”

As a parent, I feel like the more open I am about this stuff, the less likely it is for my kid to be interested in sneaking it and going down a dark path. Obviously, I can’t fully prevent this—and I would never blame any child for feeling drawn into the world of a sexual predator. But it seems like making sure kids know what all of this is—not making it be some big secret—might help, at least a little.

But the most important thing I said was this: “If something even a little bit weird happens to you online—something that makes you feel like your boundaries were overstepped in any way—you can tell me. I don’t care what it is. I will never be mad at you. You will not be in trouble. We will deal with it. And it will be okay.”

Then I crossed my fingers and toes that nothing remotely like what I read in The Times would happen to either of my kids, ever—and that if anything were to happen, we would tackle it right away, contact the authorities, and make sure everyone was safe and okay.

That’s pretty much all a parent can hope for, right? Big sigh.

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