She met him on Roblox. He said he was an 11-year-old boy from Sweden. He loved role-playing adult life on this wildly popular platform for kids. He told the girl they should connect on Snapchat.
Before connecting to the boy, the girl asked him to prove who he was. He directed her to his TikTok account. She looked on TikTok and found videos of Fortnite, an online game especially popular with boys.
Of course, this didn’t prove he was an 11-year-old boy, but she connected to him anyway. She thought it would be fine.
It wasn’t fine.
She was at school when the “boy” sent her a photo. When she opened it, she wasn’t alone. Two other girls from her class were standing next to her. The photo she opened showed not a boy but a man, and he was naked.
Horrified, the girl told the school. Parents were called. They were told to call the police. The mother of the girl also reported the incident to Snapchat. (Then she deleted the app). We all know what happened next.
Absolutely nothing. Creepy “Swedish Boy,” also known as Ryue D of Montreal, simply moved on, no doubt, to prey on other kids.
Predators Online and Off
Pedophiles have always been around. When I was a kid, we saw victims’ faces on milk cartons. Abducted children in the ’80s weren’t something kids dwelled on or understood particularly well, but we were aware creepy people existed.
There was a guy at the park and another at church. They might have been harmless, but we kids had a sense about them and kept our distance. Then there was an assistant tennis coach, who I never thought anything about. Years later, I learned he fondled boys on overnight tournament trips.
Today with the Internet — a Wild West for perverts —kids are under threat 24/7 and in their own homes' supposed safety.
The Internet has largely been self-governed until recently. Companies police their own sites for things like violence and cyber-bullying, and child abuse. They employ people to monitor and remove inappropriate content. And many big companies produce transparency reports with statistics on removed content, including content related to child nudity, abuse, and sexual exploitation. The data they share is frankly terrifying.
In 2020, Facebook reported removing 35.9 million pieces of content flagged under “child nudity and sexual exploitation.” Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, and Snapchat removed millions more posts and images that violated community guidelines regarding child abuse.
Companies have historically been immune from prosecution when people break laws on their sites. The only penalty for hosting illegal activity has been bad PR. That’s now changing as new laws in some countries mean companies too can be prosecuted.
Still, alarming incidents continue to rise. See this chart from Comparitech:
With kids at home and spending more time online amid the coronavirus pandemic, a bad situation is getting worse.
The UK’s Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reported in 2020 a 77% rise in the amount of ‘self-generated’ abuse material (criminals convincing kids to send them videos and images) from 2019, and a 16% increase in confirmed reports of videos and images of kids being sexually abused. The charity, which attempts to rid the Internet of images and videos of child sexual abuse, says there’s also been a surge in public reports to its hotline.
Then there are accounts of kids who meet their predators offline and the horrors that follow. We’re still waiting for the George Floyd or Sara Everard moment. That point when society says enough is enough.
Kids In The Wild West
Following the “Swedish boy” incident, which involved a friend of my daughter’s, I made my child go through and identify every contact on each of her social media accounts. All of our daughter’s accounts are private, and our house rule for connecting with kids on social media is that she must know them offline and online. I was relieved to find they were all kids she knew in the real world.
I’m not naive enough to think she will always follow our rules. Just the other day, another one of her friends connected to the same guy pretending to be a Swedish boy. She knew he wasn’t a kid. She had been told he was a man and what he had done. Soon after connecting to him, he sent her the same lewd photo.
Why did she do it?
Pubescent curiosity is my guess—a totally natural thing. The problem is that kids today satisfy their sexual curiosity on the Internet.
I wish it could be like when I was a kid. The most risqué thing we’d do is sneak into the den to gawk at the half-naked people in National Geographic.
For facts, advice, and tips on how to keep kids safe online, check out internetmatters.org.