Cyber Bytes: Homeland Security Initiative for Protecting Kids Online

In 2023, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 36 million reports of suspected online child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA).

In response, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched its Know2Protect public awareness campaign in April 2024. This national campaign involves partnerships with public and private sectors, including top tech companies, sports leagues, youth-serving organizations and nonprofits. Know2Protect aims to educate and empower young people, parents and other trusted adults about how to prevent and deal with exploitation and abuse, online and offline.

What is child sexual exploitation and abuse?

DHS defines CSEA as a “horrific crime that targets children and teens. It includes a broad range of criminal acts that involve victimizing a minor for sexual gratification or some other personal or financial gain. Online CSEA takes many forms, including the creation and distribution of child sexual abuse material, grooming, sextortion and threats of self-harm.”

CSEA is hard to track because it lives in the shadow of shame. Many operations are sophisticated criminal rings that operate worldwide. They might target children online in North America using computers and people located on other continents. Some are much closer to home or even someone you know.

Exposing the dark psychology behind CSEA

Having open discussions about online predatory behaviors can help kids feel comfortable disclosing incidents instead of hiding them. By exposing these incidents and removing the stigma, you’re removing the predator’s power.

Think of it this way: Your employer has probably trained you on computer security so you don’t accidentally let a hacker breach your employer’s networks. Or maybe your bank has sent you tips on avoiding phishing and smishing schemes designed to steal your information. These prevention tips teach you what to do and where to go if you encounter a fraudster. Have you equipped your children with the same resources?

Predators are good at what they do. They study their audience and know what works. They psychologically meet their victim where they are in life’s journey, luring them in using what’s most important to them.

Even if your kids say they already know or give you an eye roll, don’t let that stop you from having the conversation. They might know the facts of a scam but not recognize when they’re in one. They may also lack the experience to discern between exploitation and healthy sharing. Kids are tech-savvy but they’re also human.

Talk to your kids

You can go deeper with information depending on your child’s age. DHS has a list of definitions if you need help with terminology.

Talking to younger children

DHS offers these tips for talking with younger children:

  • Teach them not to click on pop-ups or answer ads.
  • Teach them not to share passwords, addresses or personal information online. Tell them to come to you if they’re unsure about sharing with someone.
  • Create a plan to follow if they see inappropriate content. For example, look away and tell a parent or trusted adult.
  • Warn them about trusting people they meet online. Tell them to come to you or a trusted adult if someone makes them feel nervous, scared or uncomfortable.
  • Teach online etiquette and how to be respectful of others. Tell them to speak up if they feel disrespected.
  • Talk about trusted adults in their life. Help them identify people they can go to for help. For example, “Who are the people you feel safe with? Who are some of the people you can talk to if I’m not there?”

Talking to tweens and teens

DHS offers these talking tips for tweens and teens:

  • Talk about gaming chat rooms. They’re a popular spot for child predators to recruit victims.
  • Teach them not to post personal information or inappropriate content.
  • Help them identify their personal boundaries. Discuss unacceptable and boundary-crossing behaviors.
  • Tell them healthy and safe adults won’t ask them to keep secrets or disrespect their boundaries. That includes making fun of their boundaries or shaming them into thinking they need to lower them.
  • Discuss sexting and the permanency of online data.
  • Teach them how to avoid online predators by setting up privacy controls on their devices, like restricting apps’ location access.
  • Explain the warning signs that characterize online predators.
  • Help them identify a trusted adult or guardian they can go to for help.
  • Discuss steps they can take if a friend confides in them about inappropriate online interactions, like pointing them to Know2Protect resources.
  • Tell them that posting sexual abuse material is illegal. Explain that even if they’ve been tricked into sharing sexual abuse material or involved in inappropriate online interactions, they can always tell an adult and get help.

Parent and caregiver tips

DHS offers these strategies for parents and caregivers:

  • Password-protect or control access to app store and gaming downloads.
  • Set all gaming systems, apps and devices to private. Tell your child never to leave their game chat with someone they don’t know to private chat on a different platform. This is a favorite tactic for predators.
  • Turn off location data services on social media and nonessential apps and games.
  • Create a contract with your child regarding online behavior. Include a section on data permanency and a realistic discussion about how their online behavior can follow them for years.
  • Know your child’s friend lists. Remove strangers. Ask your child to prune out unknown accounts regularly and not accept unknown friend invitations.
  • If your child is a victim of sextortion, tell them not to pay or send more images. It can make things worse, leading them deeper into the abuse.
  • Don’t forward or alter sexually explicit images or videos. Instead, keep them on the original device so law enforcement can retrieve them. Save usernames, screenshots and pictures or videos as evidence for law enforcement to collect directly from the device.

You can also bring awareness to your community by hosting an in-person or virtual presentation. To participate, contact DHS for its iGuardian training options.

Supporting survivors and reporting incidents

Online CSEA is never the victim’s fault. The DHS site lists the following resources for survivors:

One of the weapons you have against CSEA is exposing it. Keep the lines of communication open. If you suspect a child has been involved in child exploitation, report the incident. No child should endure online exploitation and abuse.