The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has begun a campaign called, “It’s Not a Game,” as a warning to parents against predators who target children through online gaming. The campaign, launched June 29, 2021, came after FBI New York Intelligence Analyst Chris Travis noticed a disturbing pattern.
“As an analyst, one of my jobs is to take case information, match it to other cases to look for trends and commonalities, and to see if different suspects are using similar methods,” Travis said. “I remember when I noticed the patterns, and it hit home. My young son loves to play online games, and he was potentially being exposed to the behavior I was seeing in these cases.”
‘It’s Not a Game’ Warns Against Online Predators
Toward the end of the summer of 2020, Travis started to notice that sexual predators were using similar tactics to target children on online gaming platforms. The predators would connect with children through chat or through a call, befriend them, and then find a way to move the children to a social media app with fewer restrictions.
Special Agent Pao Fisher, a colleague of Travis’, interviewed several suspects who described the process through which they groomed their victims. The predators would first start a conversation while pretending to be the same age as the child, said Fisher. “After a shockingly short period of time,” he continued, “they enticed their victims to take the chat to one of the popular social media apps. Most of the popular gaming sites don’t allow for the exchange of photos or videos. Once on the social media app, the suspect would pressure the child to send photos, getting more aggressive and demanding more compromising images. Ultimately, this led to the predator threatening to expose the victim’s photos to their parents or posting them online.”
After Travis reported these findings to his colleagues, including the head of the FBI New York Office, Bill Sweeney, the team decided to make a public service announcement about the report. But agents wanted to go beyond simply making an announcement, which is why they have launched a campaign calling everyone to enter this conversation and educate themselves on how to better protect children. Said Sweeney,
The FBI does not have the resources to stop every predator, which is a harsh and extremely sad reality for the world we live in. Millions and millions of children are online in multiple ways every single day, especially since the start of COVID-19. That significantly increases their chances of being victimized. We can have an impact if we educate parents about how to lock down their children’s devices and educate children about how to be safe. We can also start a conversation with other members of the community, like pediatricians, educators, and community leaders, so everyone plays a role in stopping these predators.
It’s Not a Game…and It’s Not New
Sexual predators have been targeting children online and specifically through online gaming for some time now. However, the fact that the FBI has observed a pattern recently is notable, particularly in light of the significant increase in online gaming that has occurred since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A study from Facebook Gaming found that “new mobile gamers (people who started playing after the outbreak) are significantly younger than existing players (people who were playing before) in the US, UK and Germany.” Statista found that in 2020, about a fifth of all gamers in the U.S. were 18 years or younger.
Experts warn that connecting with children through online gaming is a key way predators attempt to lure children into sex trafficking. Kevin Branzetti, an NYPD veteran and co-founder of the National Child Protection Task Force, told the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), “Our kids in this country who are sex trafficked, this is the number one way it happens. It is a meet online, it is a runaway, it’s a convincing somebody to leave. It’s not taken, it’s not the white van pulls up, scoops the kids up, and putting them in a dungeon. It is kids voluntarily leaving and not realizing what they’re going into.”
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) also warns of this possibility. In April 2020, the NCOSE shared the story of “Leo,” a sixteen-year-old boy who was groomed by a man he met on an online video game platform. When Leo decided to meet up with his “friend,” he was taken captive by a group of men who trafficked him for a year until another teenage boy replaced him.
Despite the horrifying nature of the risks posed by online gaming, Sweeney said that the FBI’s goal with “It’s Not a Game” is not to encourage parents to try to completely ban their children from being online. Rather, the hope is that parents will educate themselves and their children and that parents will prioritize their relationships with their kids. Said Sweeney, “As much as we want to shield our children from every evil in the world, that’s not a practical way to live. Children are going to play these online games, and that’s okay. But we can set parameters, we can learn the security settings on our devices, and we can talk with our children, or find someone for them to talk to.”