Op Ed: U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald Warns Of A Potential Heightened Risk of Child Exploitation Due To Increased Time Spent Online
In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, schools across Minnesota have switched to distance learning for the time being. As a result, children of all ages have access to and are using electronic devices at an unprecedented rate. This dramatic increase in time our children spend online creates a target rich environment for child predators who use various online methods to sexually exploit our children.
The sexual exploitation and abuse of a child is a despicable crime affecting some of the most vulnerable members of our community. No child should ever have to suffer the pain of such vile acts. Regrettably, the ever growing use of technology has provided child predators with more tools and opportunities than ever to perpetrate their insidious crimes.
The online sexual exploitation of children is a massive problem. During March 2020, the onset of new distance learning methods driven by COVID-19, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children received 2,027,520 reports of online child sexual exploitation, a 106 percent increase over March 2019. This is not just a national problem. It is a problem right here in Minnesota. In 2019, my office received a 43 percent increase in the number of online child exploitation case referrals over 2018. Thus far, our 2020 numbers remain equally and disturbingly high.
There is no specific profile for victims; rather, children across all demographics can be targeted. The only commonality is youth, as the average age of a victim is only fifteen years old.
This type of crime causes very real harm and has a lasting impact, especially on young victims. Images and videos do not easily disappear from the Internet and the long-term effects on victims and their families can be devastating.
There is also one commonality among predators: their willingness to target some of the most vulnerable members of our society to satisfy their prurient interests. Predators seek to take advantage of the trusting nature of young people and to prey on their youth and the vulnerability that comes with growing up. They set up fake profiles on social medial apps, gaming sites and other social networking tools. They scour social media to find children willing to befriend someone they do not know. They falsely represent themselves as someone else, such as a famous person, a new kid in town, a friend of a friend, another high school student and even modeling agents. They then cultivate an online relationship with their victims, building trust to solicit the sexually explicit images. This can happen quickly. In one case, it took only thirty minutes from the time the predator met the child on Facebook messenger to when the minor victim was producing sexually explicit images and videos for the perpetrator to exploit.
I write today to raise our collective awareness of this issue as we all adjust to the rhythms of life during COVID-19. This type of exploitation thrives in secret. The more we talk about it the more effective we are at combatting these heinous crimes.
With the fact that children are spending more time online comes the need for vigilance regarding our children’s online social interaction. The threat from online child predators is both real and unobtrusive but can be mitigated by teaching our children how to use the internet safely and responsibly and by monitoring their use as appropriate for their age.
Preventing children from becoming victims is an important priority for federal law enforcement officials in Minnesota. In my office, we have a team of prosecutors who are specially trained to investigate and prosecute online child exploitation cases and work with law enforcement not only solve these crimes but to provide education and training to prevent the crimes from occurring. FBI Special Agent in Charge Rainer Drohshagen and I penned a joint letter to the Minnesota Department of Education explaining the heightened risk of online exploitation due to kids’ increased online presence and emphasizing the need for vigilance.
I encourage parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, and all caregivers to review the library of resources deployed by our partners at the FBI regarding child exploitation and other crimes related to COVID-19 at https://www.fbi.gov/coronavirus. Additional resources and data are available from NCMEC at www.missingkids.org.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota has engaged and continues to engage parents, teachers, community leaders and law enforcement on this issue to offer practical resources, tips and case examples, and we will continue to do so. Now more than ever, however, we need everyone to join us in the fight for our children’s safety. This is an issue that cannot be spoken about enough. The predators are relentless; therefore, we too must be relentless. Look for red flags, talk to your children, and know where to report.