About this Series
This is the sixth in a series of posts from our partners on the Match Group Advisory Council. These posts focus on safety topics that are important to our partners, our company, and our users. We have asked Match Group Advisory Council Members to contribute their expert insights to our Trust and Safety Center to increase awareness among our members and amplify our collaborative work to improve safety both on our platforms and in our greater community.
By John F. Clark, President and CEO
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
They met on a popular online gaming platform. She was 11; he was 17.
Fast forward a few years to 2020, as the country was in the throes of the pandemic and schools were shuttered. The boy, now 19, drove more than 700 miles to pick up the girl, now 14, he had met online. The two then made the long trip back to his parent’s home, where he hid her in his closet and the trunk of his vehicle.
The girl’s frantic family reported her missing, touching off a nationwide search for more than six weeks. The young man’s parents eventually discovered the girl in their home and didn’t buy their son’s explanation: that she was his 16-year-old girlfriend who lived locally. Doing a little research, they realized she was missing and took them both to the police station. The 19-year-old was charged with sexually assaulting the young girl.
With children spending more time at home online during the pandemic – doing schoolwork, connecting with friends, playing video games – reports of online enticement have skyrocketed since stay-at-home orders went into effect in March 2020. At the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), our CyberTipline received 37,872 reports of suspected online enticement of a child in 2020, compared to 19,174 the year before, a 97.5% increase.
“As the pandemic has entered its second year, children are more reliant than ever on the online environment for school and personal communication,” said John E. Bischoff III, vice president of NCMEC’s Missing Children Division. “It’s imperative that care-givers become aware of what is transpiring on digital devices under their own roof.”
Match Group takes very seriously the safety of those who use its popular online dating services, partnering with organizations such as ours to keep its users informed about evolving crimes involving children and to give them advice about keeping them safe. While Match Group’s apps are only for adults, many of their users have children in their homes and see it as a valuable opportunity to educate their user base on how to keep children safe elsewhere across the internet.
Online enticement is a serious crime that occurs when someone is communicating online with someone they believe to be a child for the purposes of committing a sexual offense or abduction. This is a broad category that includes sextortion, in which a child is being groomed to take and share increasingly sexually explicit images of themselves, often under threat that harm will come to their families or that the images will be shared with friends and parents if they don’t comply.
Online enticement can also lead to engaging in a sexual conversation online or ultimately meeting in person for sexual purposes. This type of victimization occurs across every online system, including social media, messaging apps, and gaming platforms. Child predators don’t have to break into a home; they can reach potential victims on the internet through their computers or their phones, in the safety of their homes.
“Online enticement can happen to any child using the internet,” said Lindsey Olson, executive director of NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division. “Offenders are very effective at grooming children, gaining their trust, isolating them from their parents and then exploiting them. Parents often think that it would never happen to their child, but we know that is simply not true.” When a report is made to our CyberTipline – the centralized reporting system for suspected online child sexual exploitation – our analysts send it to the appropriate law-enforcement agency for potential investigation and prosecution. Because the internet is used by people globally and offers a degree of anonymity, the analysts first must determine which law-enforcement agency in the U.S. or around the world has jurisdiction to investigate the suspected crime.
Last year, our CyberTipline received a record number of reports – a staggering 21.7 million. As is the case each year, the vast majority are reports of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), more commonly known as child pornography. We’re working with Congress to change the term to CSAM and call it what it is: the rape and sexual abuse of children, some as young as infants, literally captured on film in images and videos and shared on the internet repeatedly around the globe. These images are tantamount to crime-scene photos.
Our analysts monitor trends from the massive amount of data we receive 24/7 to the CyberTipline and have noticed the clear and disturbing uptick in reports of online enticement during the pandemic. As children are spending more time online during this unique time in our country’s history, it’s critical that adults in their lives educate them about dangers on the internet and staying safe online.
“The best thing you can do to protect your child online is to be involved in their online life,” said Susan Kennedy, NCMEC’s Prevention Program Manager. “Ask about what they are doing online and take a genuine interest. Provide guidance but try not to be overly punitive or judgmental.”
Offenders are able to take advantage of children when their activities are secret, Kennedy said. It’s more likely to happen when children are not comfortable or even afraid to tell adults when something is happening online, especially when they’ve done things they regret doing, she said.
Fortunately at NCMEC, we have numerous, free data-informed prevention resources for parents and guardians, as well as for children of all ages, to learn more about how to stay safe and prevent online enticement. For children 10 and younger, we have our own animated series, “Into the Cloud” which teaches children useful tips for staying safe online. Season 1 and 2 are available now!
If you or your child have experienced online enticement, know that you’re not alone. Along with prevention resources, NCMEC provides help and support to those who have experienced this crime. Learn more here. You can also email family email@example.com or call 1-877-446-2632 to be connected to someone for emotional support. NCMEC also has the tools to help you remove explicit content that appears online. To learn more, click here.
Match Group Safety Tips for Parents Keeping their Children Safe online
- Educate your child about online safety.
- If you see an underage user on one of our dating apps, use our in-app tools to file a report. Our dating apps are not for anyone under age 18, period.