Signs your child is talking to a predator and how to help them stay safe

Mar 23, 2022, 10:15 PM | Updated: Jun 18, 2022, 8:52 pm

After Utah saw two teen abductions this month, both from situations where predators met the teens online, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force is giving crucial tips to parents on how to spot if their child is at risk of becoming a victim.

It is a worst-case scenario situation for parents: Their child disappears, at the hands of a person who has spent days to months grooming them and planning the abduction.

The fear isn’t far-fetched, as demonstrated twice in March.

Two weeks ago, a Roosevelt teen went missing from her home.  Police discovered she met a man through the Oculus virtual reality program, and allege that he took her in the back of a semi headed for Florida. Officers rescued the girl in Wyoming.

This week, an Amber Alert was issued for a Magna teen who police believe was coerced into leaving her home by a man she met on social media months ago.

That man is now in jail on kidnapping charges, after authorities found the girl in Texas.

With technology constantly evolving and new forms of communication emerging, it can be hard for parents to stay on top of it all explained Michell Busch-Upwall.

Busch-Upwall is the ICAC education specialist at the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

“One in five kids is sexually solicited online,” she said. “So that’s a really high stat. So it’s kind of a not ‘if,’ but ‘when’ question.”

To help prepare for that “when,” Busch-Upwall talked about how there are monitoring apps and software parents can use to stay on top of their children’s activities on their phones or computers.

Phone carriers like Verizon, she explained, even have options to keep track of the phone numbers children are texting.

But if a child doesn’t speak up and something slips past, the signs something is wrong may be outside of any smartphone, Busch-Upwall indicated.

She listed signs like a child or teen exhibiting anxiety, depression, or getting lower grades at school.

“Pulling away from their family, their friends, really being in more solitude,” Busch-Upwall said, of another sign. “Because what that predator wants to do is pull them away and be their lone support. They want to be that one and only person they trust.”

Watch for your child trying to suddenly change their looks, she said, or secretly receiving things in the mail like gifts.

“They’ll send them phones, so maybe that’s their line of access and they don’t have to let their parents know,” she explained. “Pushing down the computer when parents come in, because they’re secretive and they don’t want them to know who they’re talking to.”

The biggest thing Busch-Upwall stressed is for parents to talk with their kids about predators, grooming, and the dangers lurking behind their screens.

She said a lot of times, kids don’t communicate with parents because they feel like their phone or computer will get taken away and that is their lifeline.

“Having those open lines of communication and then keeping it so it’s not aggressive, it’s not in your face,” she expressed. “So that they feel comfortable when and if something like this does happen.”

In addition to keeping open communication and educating children on the risks online, she suggested parents know every device their child is using and every single app.

If a child wants to download an app like Snapchat, she urged parents to also download that app and become familiar with it, and understand its pros and cons.

This also goes for games.

“Making sure that we understand kind of what world we’re putting our kids in,” she said. “Making sure we understand how that works as adults.”

And finally, if a parent suspects their child is talking to or being groomed by a predator, Busch-Upwall recommended they reach out to local police or a school resource officer to report it.

They can also report it by emailing utahicac@agutah.gov, by calling 801-281-1211, or reporting online through the Cyber Tip Line run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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Signs your child is talking to a predator and how to help them stay safe