Online Child Sexual Predation, Context Of Threat and Bark’s Project Stonefish. What To Do?
As a company, we support and promote the Bark app as a software option for parents to help monitor their pre-teens’ and teens’ “onlife” interactions where reasonable to do so. In fact, Bark and their “Centre for Excellence in Online Safety” has recognized The White Hatter as a Distinguished Leader in Online Safety. We are the first and only Canadian company to receive such a recognition which we are extremely grateful for.
Last year, Bark created an online undercover operation called, “Project Stonefish.” (1) The Goal of Project Stonefish, “…to go undercover in an online ecosystem to identify sexual predators and report them to law enforcement.” A secondary goal was “to demonstrate and educate parents on how predators operate in the digital age and how to help protect their kids.”
Bark formed a team comprised of civilian software, hardware, and online communications specialists who created a covert online profile of a 11-year-old that they used as a lure on a variety of social networks that youth frequent online. Again, the goal: to identify those who target children online for sexual predation, and to then provide this information to law enforcement for their follow-up. Given the financial challenges faced by many law enforcement agencies in investigating such cases, we actually salute Bark for this coordinated, public/private corporate and law enforcement partnership to help police this online challenge. As Sir Robert Peel (the “father of policing”) stated, “The police are the public and the public are the police.”
Over the past several months, Bark has been publishing articles about the results of Project Stonefish, and just they recently released a video that has garnered millions of views by parents, which in turn has triggered an understandable parental moral panic over this concerning issue and the frequency specific to youth online sexual predation (2).
Bark’s Project Stonefish reminds me of a similar project by a group called Perverted Justice, who, in 2004, became famous because of a show that aired on Dateline NBC called, “To Catch A Predator” (3). Perverted Justice partnered with law enforcement to identify and arrest those who were targeting youth for sexual predation. As a result of their work, Perverted Justice has been credited for assisting in 623 convictions of online predators who had targeted youth online for sexual predation.
When “To Catch A Predator” was first aired, there was also an outcry from parents about the dangers of the internet specific to online predation. I remember hearing from parents back in 2004 how they were no longer going to allow their children online because predators were lurking everywhere on the internet. Much like in 2004, I am now seeing a repeat of this parental moral panic because of Bark’s Project Stonefish and the significant media coverage it has received over the past few months.
Is the online sexual predation of our kids by a “stranger” a reality? YES! Is it happening everywhere online to ALL pre-teens and teens? Based on my experience as a retired law enforcement professional, and now as an online social media safety and digital literacy advocate and online investigator that depending upon age, NO! This belief is also supported in good evidence-based research (4). This 2018 research found that only about one in nine youth (11%) between the ages of 12-16 years of age had been targeted online for sexual predation by a stranger. Yes, that is 11% too many, but it is not at the epidemic levels that many parents now believe given the current media coverage specific to Project Stonefish. In fact, if your teen is going to be sexually exploited online, it will often be by someone who the child usually knows, loves, or trusts. This fact is also something that has been anecdotally echoed by the 490,000 teens that we have presented to in our social media safety and digital literacy presentations.
As Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, and its Child Predator Section unit state in a recent news article, “The same number of predators exists, it’s just that their tools have changed. There are more ways for them to access children, and we have gotten better at finding them. They have easier access to their victims and to children because they are online at a younger and younger age” (5).
Context is important specific to Project Stonefish. Bark’s undercover online operation used the persona of an 11-year-old child as the lure. It should not surprise any of us that an 11-year-old who is allowed to have unsupervised access to the internet would be quickly targeted for online predation. Those under the age of 13 who are allowed unsupervised access to the internet are prime targets for these online sexual predators. In fact, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection reported out in 2020 that they have seen a “57 percent increase — 68 in 2018 versus 107 in 2019 — in reports of adults contacting children ages 8 to 12 to engage in sexual activities via live stream” (6).
However, my question specific to this issue is “why would any parent allow a child under the age of 13 to have unsupervised access to the world wide web, especially when it comes to online chat apps and streaming?” I’ve heard parents say, “I’ve taught my child not to talk to strangers.” Well, I’ve explained in other articles that teaching “stranger danger” specific to online sexual predation doesn’t work (7). Also, it has been my experience that those under the age of 13 often do not have the ability to critically think about a potential online threat, such as the grooming process and online other aspects of sexual predation.
Why has Project Stonefish been so successful and why has the Canadian Centre for Child Protection seen a 57% increase in reports of adults contacting children ages 8 to 12 to engage in sexual activities via live streaming? It’s my professional opinion that too many parents are placing these digital devices, which have the ability to connect to the internet 24/7, in the unsupervised hands of those under the age of 13. We have found that too many parents use these digital devices as digital pacifiers rather than the very powerful communication tools that these devices are primarily designed to be used as. Plain and simple, unsupervised full access to the internet by those under the age of 13 is often a recipe for disaster.
Yes, it’s easy to give those under the age of 13 a device to keep them happy, distracted, and busy online giving you time to relax from a hard day’s work and freeing you up to do things you like to do. However, abdication of parental supervision, specific to your child’s online activity, is exactly what the online predator is counting on and they will use it to their advantage.
So, what can parents do to help reduce the risks of their child becoming the target of online sexual predation by someone they don’t know?
Pre-teens and younger teens should not be allowed to have unsupervised access to the internet, especially in their bedrooms.
Pre-teens and younger teens have no right to privacy from us parents about their online activities. They can earn this right as they mature by showing us good digital literacy and good online judgement over time.
Parents need to stop abdicating their responsibility to supervise and teach their kids about social media safety and digital literacy. Parents need to be their child’s best parent when it comes to their child’s online activities, and not their child’s best friend; there is a difference.
Parents need to get more involved in their pre-teen’s and younger teen’s online world. Participate with your child online, learn by doing and enjoy the onlife world together. Studies have shown that parents who meaningfully engage with their child online, those children are far less likely to find themselves in bad online situations (9).
Parents should educate themselves about the online grooming process that sexual predators will use to lure a child and share this with their child in an enlightening and not frightening way. Something I call “compounding” a message (10) (11) (12).
Ensure that your child is ready for a digital device, like a cellphone (13), and make sure you pick the right one (14).
Where reasonable to do so, consider using monitoring software such as Bark on a pre-teen’s or younger teen’s digital device (15).
The White Hatter Team