The internet is a dangerous place for children. This cannot be said enough. It must be said, in fact, until all parents are fully aware of the risks their children face when given unsupervised access to the internet. Luckily, there are people in this world dedicated to outing online perverts and bringing them to justice.
Bark is one such company. They’re a tech company committed to child safety and they’ve put together a team of people who go online, undercover as young children, in order to lure sexual predators and report them to the proper authorities.
On December 13th, Bark’s Special Projects Team leader, Sloan Ryan, published an article entitled “I’m a 37-Year-Old Mom & I Spent Seven Days Online as an 11-Year-Old Girl. Here’s What I Learned” to expose the perversion and utter depravity of online serial predators.
Ryan explains about Bark and preparing to go undercover:
Bark uses AI to alert parents and schools when children are experiencing issues like cyberbullying, depression, threats of violence — or in this case, targeting by sexual predators. Currently, we’re covering more than 4 million kids, and we analyze 20 million activities a day. I look at Brian studying the computer screen and consider his assessment. I nod and sigh. I buy it, too.
With the help of context — clothing, background, hair styling — and the magic of photo manipulation, we’re no longer staring at an image of me, an adult woman with crow’s feet. We’re staring at a photo of fictitious 11-year-old Bailey, and no matter how many times we do this, the results are still unnerving. Not because we’re creating a child out of thin air, but because we are deliberately putting Bailey in harm’s way to show exactly how pervasive the issue of predation is for Generation Z.
Sloan Ryan is not her real name, and all of the names in the article have been changed to protect their identities and the integrity of their very important work, nonetheless, this story remains powerful and sobering but also is not for the faint of heart. Be advised, the article shows disturbing, real examples of men trying to sexually abuse an 11-year-old girl on the internet.
Ryan goes on to explain about the evolution of this project:
Less than a year ago, Brian and I sat in a meeting where we wrestled with how exactly to talk to parents about online grooming. Back when Bark was a much smaller team, we encountered a particularly harrowing case of an online predator abusing a girl in middle school. She was only 12 years old, and this man was grooming her through her school email account, coercing her to send videos of herself performing sexual acts. We knew people like him were out there, but it floored us to see how quickly and deftly he was able to manipulate this child.
In 2018 alone, Bark alerted the FBI to 99 child predators. In 2019? That number is more than 300 — and counting. Each of these cases represents a real child experiencing real harm, and our challenge is to help parents and schools understand this new reality. But how do we tell stories without asking families to divulge too much? How do we explain online grooming to a generation who didn’t grow up with this danger? Numbers, though informative, are abstract and easy to gloss over.
I was frustrated by the problem we were facing, tapping my pen on the conference table and thinking out loud. “When parents think about predators,” I suggested to Brian, “they think about someone tossing their kid in a trunk and driving off. They don’t think about the unseen abuse that happens online. In a perfect world, we’d share a conversation from an actual predator, but that feels like traumatizing the victim all over again…”
I trailed off. We had gone in circles on this same concept.
“What if we just set up fake accounts ourselves to demonstrate to parents what can happen online?” Brian asked. I raised both eyebrows at the idea. Waited a beat to see if he was joking. He wasn’t.
Just like that this project was born and has brought hundreds of online predators out of the shadows and into the hands of law enforcement. The numbers are truly disturbing. The jump from 2018 to 2019 is staggering and almost unfathomable. You cannot assume this would not happen to your child or that your child is safe online because they are in your home. Predators do not need to physically meet a child in order to abuse them.
As Ryan puts it, “The brutal reality is that a predator doesn’t have to be in the same room, building, or even country to abuse a child. And that’s what they’re doing — subjecting children to psychological and sexual abuse.”
Below are some excerpts from Ryan’s article in which she details the process and some of the abuse they encountered while posing as an 11-year-old. We tried not to include much of the graphic language. We think you’ll get the picture.
With the photo ready to go, we all move to the media room where I pair an iPhone to the big-screen TV. We settle into couches and armchairs and Nathan adjusts a camcorder on a tripod pointed right at the TV. Evidence is precious, and we keep cameras rolling to make sure every interaction involving criminal activity has a digital paper trail for our contacts in law enforcement.
I upload the photo to Instagram — a generic, innocuous selfie of Bailey with an ear-to-ear smile — and caption it.
“v excitedd to see my friends this weekend at carly’s party! Ilysm!! followed by a string of emojis and a #friends hashtag”
The photo publishes on Instagram and we wait quietly for something on the big screen to change.
This part never takes long. It’s always unnervingly fast.
At the beginning of the week, on the very first night as Bailey, two new messages came in under a minute after publishing a photo. We sat mouths agape as the numbers pinged up on the screen — 2, 3, 7, 15 messages from adult men over the course of two hours. Half of them could be charged with transfer of obscene content to a minor. That night, I had taken a breather and sat with my head in my hands.
By the end of two-and-a-half hours, I’ve had seven video calls, ignored another two dozen of them, text-chatted with 17 men (some who had messaged her before, gearing back up in hopes for more interaction), and seen the genitalia of 11 of those. I’ve also fielded (and subsequently denied) multiple requests for above-the-waist nudity (in spite of being clear that Bailey’s breasts have not yet developed) and below-the-waist nudity.
The script we see is largely the same.
You’re so pretty.
You should be a model.
I’m older than you.
What would you do if you were here, baby?
Would you touch my d*** if you were here?
Have you seen one before, baby?
Baby. They keep calling her baby without an ounce of irony.
Baby, you’re so beautiful.
Talk to me, baby.
I want you to put your mouth on my d***, baby.
Just get on video chat, baby.
Don’t be shy, baby.
Over the course of one week, over 52 men reached out to an 11-year-old girl. We sit with that stat as we soberly shut down the TV and the camcorder.
The work Bark is doing is some of the most important work of this modern, techno-centered day in age. Think of all the millions of children who are given iPads, tablets, smartphones, laptops, etc. over the holiday season. How many of them will fall victim to this perverse online child predation? It’s heartbreaking to consider.
It’s so important to share this article with every parent you know. Parents have to be aware of the dangers of the internet facing their vulnerable children. We cannot stress this enough, be vigilant and overprotective when it comes to allowing your children online access. Or just don’t allow them on the internet at all.
Pray that Bark continues to see success and grows to become larger and even more effective in the battle against online sexual predators.
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