Since the pandemic, children have been relegated to laptops and phones for school, clubs, and activities. That meant a lot more time in front of screens—and online predators have tried to follow them there.
The nonprofit National Center for Missing & Exploited Children operates a clearinghouse for tips of child online exploitation. In a new report released to CBS News, the center says it received 29.3 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation last year—an increase of 35% from 2020 and an all-time high.
"The predators recognize that there were going to be more hours online where teens and children were going to be unsupervised, and they were encouraging each other to seize upon that opportunity," said John Shehan, vice president of the Exploited Children Division at the center.
Nearly all of the 29 million tips come from phone and social media companies, which are legally required to report possible illegal images to the national center. This past year, they received more tips about unlawful videos than still images.
Alicia Kozak was 13 years old when she was kidnapped by an online predator. Her abduction triggered a nationwide manhunt. Kozak was taken from her Pittsburgh home to a basement in Virginia where she was abused before being rescued by law enforcement agents.
More than a decade later, Kozak, who promotes internet safety, told CBS News that predators realize kids across America now have wider access to phones and computers at an even younger age.
"If a predator were to try to groom a child at a park, or at a mall or somewhere, school, something like that, they really only had those few chances. Whereas on the internet, they can just easily close that chat box and close that app and go to that next possible victim," she said.
Kozak says parents need to do more than just take away devices.
"They have to monitor what their children are doing online. They have to pay attention and I know it might seem like you're invading their privacy, but you're not. You're keeping them safe," Kozak said.
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