Van Beek: How online predators sexually exploit children
Child sexual exploitation is a highly sensitive topic and should be discussed in families. Children don’t always understand what’s happening to them and while it is not common in Eagle County, if it only happens to only one child, that is one child too many.
There are numerous resources available with statistics and procedures, but I wanted to delve into the heart and soul of this traumatic experience, from a victim’s perspective. It is from that angle that we might understand how easy it is for a child to be influenced.
This series is presented in three parts. The first is focused on child sexual exploitation through incest. This second part deals with online predators. The third part will be on human trafficking.
Due to the extreme nature of this crime, we are presenting it from a child’s voice, to help adults understand the vulnerability of children and the ease with which predators seek their victims and maintain their hold.
Oftentimes, predators are hidden in plain sight because, as a small community, we give people the benefit of the doubt and may ignore signs of danger. It is within that comfort zone that dangerous deviants will prey.
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Some might say that there’s an increase in child sexual exploitation, while others say that it’s just being reported more frequently as people become more aware. Either way, as adults, we are the first line of defense against those who seek to harm innocent children.
Lately, we have seen a rise in child sexual exploitation cases in Eagle County. It’s important that we all become vigilant in protecting the most vulnerable. These children live in constant fear. Their time of innocence is replaced by intense pain, grief and life-altering trauma.
Over the past few years, online predators have had a much easier time attracting victims. The pandemic made hours of daily screen time essential for both education and entertainment. It also opened our children’s space to many unknowns … offering a mixture of reality and fantasy, excitement and danger, friends and foes. The entry device for predators is a cell phone or tablet, which follows our children right into their bedrooms. It’s a danger we would recognize and never allow in person.
That danger may look like this …
“She’s got over 1,000 likes, wow, that’s incredible! She always looks fantastic and has so many friends. I wish I were as popular as her. I can’t get 20 people to like even one of my posts!
Maybe I would be popular too if I got to travel and had all of those great clothes. I keep changing my hair and makeup, but I just never look as good as my friends. I always look like such a loser. I hate myself!
My real friends are the people I meet online, they truly understand me. They don’t judge and they feel the same way that I do. I have never felt as connected as I do with them.
There is one in particular that makes me feel so special. I met him in an online game. He makes me laugh. We started talking about things we both like. I can’t believe how alike we are! He finally asked that I send him a photo. He thinks I’m so beautiful!
We connect on such a personal level that I think I’d like to meet him. I know that everyone says it’s dangerous, but he is different. He is kind and knows how smart I am. He says he can help me to get thousands of followers and become an “influencer” on social media. I could make a ton of friends and even make money. I could be a celebrity like the Kardashians! He knows that my school friends won’t help me because they are jealous.
Since we haven’t yet met in person, I sent him a few private photos, so that he could see my body shape and help me to pick clothes that would make me look good. He says he handles social media for lots of people, but they don’t want him telling anyone their secret. Soon, I’ll become an influencer too, and everyone will notice!
I’m so excited, I can’t wait to meet him. He says I shouldn’t tell anyone until we have my online page set up. He even knows people in Hollywood, where I might get a role on a reality show, and for sure, I’ll get to do some modeling. My parents will be so surprised, and my friends will wish they were me.
To keep the surprise, he suggests that we meet at a place where people don’t know me so that we can work on setting up my new profile. I should bring several changes of clothes so that he can photograph me with a green screen. That’s where they put pictures in the background and it looks like I’m traveling the world! His professional makeup person will make me look like a superstar.
Since I’m so busy with school and with my parents in the evening, I’ll have to sneak out at night so that we have enough time to get everything done before morning.
Good night mom and dad, I’ll see you in the morning. My heart is racing as I climb out the window, I keep thinking about how exciting it will be when my parents see how famous I become. I’ll be a celebrity and they will be so proud.
If you see a child that is behaving oddly, appears frightened, shows signs of physical abuse, or is with an adult that is behaving erratically, attempt to engage that child in conversation and discretely gather as much information as possible. If you remain concerned, call 911. You may have only one chance to save that child’s life.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.