You may want to think twice before buying that smart device for your child this holiday season. A new trend growing alongside the increase in children’s use of technology is something called “Bunny Hunting,” the latest term for predators targeting kids online.
According to one Illinois Sheriff, Bunny Hunters like their prey young, approximately between 8-12 years old, more often female than male. Bunny Hunters use any one of the hundreds of free apps available for use on a smartphone or tablet in order to connect with young children. They cultivate relationships with these kids online and then lure them onto “more dangerous sites that are unregulated”.
Fox Illinois investigated one app that’s a new, free lip syncing app popular with kids and teens across the country. Kristine Feller of the Attorney General’s office says she sees users leaving their profiles public, allowing predators constant access to kids.
“These apps allow us to engage socially,” said Feller. “We can use it appropriately or we could misuse that app.”
Within a few moments of downloading the app, we found several users claiming to be 12 years or younger with public profiles dancing in front of the camera. Apps like these are easily accessible because they are free and have few restrictions for creating user profiles.
“The thing we’re seeing now is, there’s such a variety of apps out there,” said Detective Mike Harth of the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department. “There’s different internet chatting, social media and they’re so readily accessible.”
Feller says these apps and other social media platforms create a false sense of security because kids are using them within the comfort of their own homes.
“If we’re not getting along with their parents and guardians at home, most likely there’s someone online who will spend time, who will build them up,” said Feller. “That grooming experience can start to begin for them.”
Law enforcement in Loudon County, Virginia, has developed a technology safety program for presentation in public schools. The presentation, often given to students around 11-12 years of age, involves candid, age-appropriate discussion of sexting, sextortion, and cyberbullying. When asked if they would report inappropriate behavior or a threat they received online to their parents, some students said no, for rather telling reasons:
“They might take away your phone,” one girl says.
“You might just think it’s a joke,” another girl says.
“Maybe you think you can just handle it yourself,” a boy volunteers.
These seemingly logical answers reveal the fact that tweens are not emotionally or psychologically prepared for what they will inevitably encounter online. Fascinated with the independence and authority technology brings they are willing to put themselves in danger, however inadvertently, for the sake of retaining the feeling of autonomy every pubescent tween craves.
Social media platforms require users to be at least 13 before creating an account. However, little can be done to verify a user’s actual age, and most children are smart enough to fake a birth date in order to gain access. Because many parents are so ill-informed when it comes to social media, it is highly recommended that they contact their local law enforcement agency or social services provider to see if they, too, can participate in a technology safety program in order to learn how better to keep their children safe online. Tips include disabling geotag functions in apps, how to set profiles to private instead of public, and never sharing home wireless passwords with anyone.