SHERIDAN — Uprising Executive Director Terri Markham and Wyoming Internet Crimes Against Children Commander Chris McDonald presented to a room full of parents, school liaisons and victim advocates Tuesday on the topic of online youth sexual exploitation.

Markham said children and teens are gaining access to technology at younger and younger ages, propping naïve minds up to potentially be taken advantage of by online predators.

“Right now, the way that the world is, the way that technology is, it’s not going away. It’s only going to become more and more part of the business,” Markham said. “We can’t parent and approach safety the same way that we did even when I was a kid or when you were a kid. The world is so much different now. We have to be the adults who catch up to technology in order to help keep our kids safer.”

While many assume that the most prevalent form of sexual exploitation of children online would be sending nude photos, or ‘nudes,’ McDonald said the sending and receiving of nudes is only the tip of the iceberg investigated by ICAC. 

According to McDonald, an all too common form of child sexual exploitation online is sextortion, where predators will coerce youths to send explicit content under the threat of releasing the material publicly or to friends and family.

“When we talk to victims of online sexual exploitation, I don’t see a difference in the way those victims react to it… It’s the same victimization. Those predators use the same methods,” McDonald said. “It’s constant manipulation of, ‘It’s your fault, you participated, you liked it, no one’s going to believe you and you’re going to be in trouble.’ The grooming process and the exploitation process is, I don’t want to say ‘cookie cutter,’ but we just see it all the time.”

Markham said one of the keys to preventing any kind of online sexual exploitation is to know the signs. 

The first thing an online predator might look for in a potential victim is vulnerability, Markham said, noting there are simpler notifiers of vulnerability than one might think, including a need of validation, a longing for adventure or even just the fact that minors have underdeveloped brains.

McDonald said social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat as well as online multiplayer video games like Fortnite, Among Us and Roblox are common hunting grounds for online predators who know that these platforms are largely used by children. 

After establishing conversation with a potential victim, predators often ask minors to ‘platform jump’ to other chat applications that provide anonymity, a frequent platform represented in ICAC cases being a messaging app called Kik.

“If you see a Kik tip come in, you know that’s going to be legitimate. That’s going to be what we call bad stuff. Not that it’s not all bad, but it’s usually pretty egregious,” McDonald said. “Kik has the ability to create channels and groups and it’s all anonymous so that you can trade whatever you want inside Kik. You throw a [virtual private network] or a proxy server on top of that, those people are really hard to catch.”

An important factor of preventing online sexual exploitation of minors is for parents, teachers and any professional who works with children to establish themselves as a safe space for children to come to if themselves or someone they know might be a victim, Markham said, even if that means starting uncomfortable conversations.

“This is the stuff that’s scary to me, seeing how our kids are almost desensitized to it and it’s just a normal part of their life. They don’t think anything of it,” Markham said. “They can talk about it and it’s just part of their lives, which unfortunately means that these conversations now have to be a part of our lives too because we want to keep our kids safe out there. You’re going to have to get a little bit uncomfortable and know that you’re going to have to dive into this whether you want to or not.”

Markham gave tips for hosting tough conversations about online exploitation with children, noting it can be empowering for the child or teen to be able to lead the conversation or look at the topic through a lens of protecting their friends or younger siblings.

Through his work at ICAC, McDonald said victims of online sexual exploitation exist anywhere the internet does and prevention is the best way to lower those numbers.

“None of our communities are immune. Sheridan is not immune, Gillette is not immune, Newcastle is not immune, none of us are immune to this and it’s easy to see why in my opinion,” McDonald said. “The internet is pervasive. It saturates our society, so it doesn’t matter where you are. If you have an internet connection, then you’ll have victims there.”

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