Predators targeting children online as they spend more time at home during pandemic

A year-long FOX 11 investigation has uncovered a troubling trend, online child exploitation has soared during the pandemic. Experts say because of the pandemic, kids' social lives have moved online and made them more vulnerable. 

"The pandemic isn't just losing academic time," said Dr. Lisa Strohman, "It's about opening the doors to predators online because they know we aren't watching."

Strohman, who has worked with the FBI, is a psychologist who specializes in mental health and technology. She says isolation is also making kids seek out attention and validation online. She calls it a dangerous combination.

We found live stream after live stream of children being coaxed, propositioned or worse. In one live stream, a young child can be heard warning other kids not to enter a private chat room with a man, because he had shown her porn. 

Another child talks about a man exposing himself to her. There were also live streams where children were offering to take off their clothes, or were leading games of truth or dare, prompting viewers to give them inappropriate dares. 

Some of the comments were from fellow children, but others were clearly adults. We always dropped out of the live streams before things got explicit and tipped off parents and law enforcement when we could. 

Strohman says kids need affirmation and they are tricked into thinking the followers, likes and gifts that they get on social media live streams are approval. 

"Not only are they putting themselves out there to connect with someone, they are thinking whether or not this person wants to connect back with them," Strohman said. 

She adds when a stream doesn't get the attention a child seeks, they often get more explicit to get attention.

"Sometimes they are in the same room with parents or in the room next to them," Strohman said. "Because I hear the parent in the background and the child is being groomed in front of them and the child is whispering.

Get your top stories delivered daily! Sign up for FOX 11’s Fast 5 newsletter. And, get breaking news alerts in the FOX 11 News app. Download for iOS or Android.

"There's not one platform that is absolutely safe 100% of the time," said Callahan Walsh with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.  

He says reports of online enticement have doubled during COVID-19. 

"The lockdown as created a false sense of security," he said. "The self-production of child pornography is an increasingly problematic issue, children produce the content

often at the behest of an adult or another person and live streaming adds another layer to that.

Experts tell Fox11 that the content of live streams often go undetected by the algorithms social media companies have set up to root out pedophiles. They also say live streams add another dimension of peer pressure, where multiple people may be urging a child to do something they otherwise wouldn't. 

A study by the group, which is dedicated to fighting online sexual abuse, found 14% of boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 12 had been asked for a nude photo or video online and  25% of kids between 9 and 17 years old reported they had an online sexual interaction with someone they believed to be an adult.

Experts say parents should talk to their kids about the dangers online and what they should do if someone asks them to do something inappropriate. They also recommend rules against devices in bedrooms at night or in bathrooms and only allowing kids on devices in common rooms with others present and no headphones. You should also read your child's direct messages. Also, experts say  Snapchat, Instagram and others have age requirements for a reason.  If your child doesn't meet them then they should not be on those platforms.

If you find out your child is a victim, experts say don't shame or yell at them. Instead, assure them they've done nothing wrong and notify law enforcement. Also, resist the urge to confront predators on live streams or in chats, because that could cause the predator to destroy evidence and cover his tracks. Instead, hand over your child's device to the police and let them take the lead. 

Families are also encouraged to check out the following resources: