The recent conviction of a Newfoundland man on internet luring and child pornography charges should act as a wake-up call for the parents of children who play video games online, advocates say.
Joseph Rice, 37, from Paradise was sentenced in October. He struck up a friendship with a 16-year-old boy in Massachusetts in 2011 through online gaming.
But the relationship became sexual in nature when Rice sent the teen nude photos of a 12-year-old boy. The teen in turn sent back naked photos of himself.
The teen finally went to police when Rice said he wanted to visit, so the relationship could become physical.
Rice pleaded guilty to the charges, and was sentenced to 22 months for internet luring, and for the possession and distribution of child pornography.
Jeff Smyth, an avid gamer and the vice-president of Memorial University's Goodwill Gaming Society, said anecdotally, he's heard stories about online interactions gone wrong.
"I've actually had experience with a few friends who gave out a bit too much information to people online," he said.
"Some people even had people trying to get them to go, fly down to the [United States] to either meet them or live with them, or a massive list of other intents. So it does happen, and that's why you really need to be careful."
Predators know where to look
Det.-Sgt. Darren Oleksiuk, who works with the Internet Child Exploitation unit of the Winnipeg Police, said predators know where to search for their victims.
Ensuring online safety
Jeff Smyth, the vice-president of Memorial University's Goodwill Gaming Society, says it’s important for parents to keep an eye on what their children are doing in terms of online gaming.
He said it's also important for gamers to pay attention to how they're interacting with people.
"In real life, you don't go up to a stranger on the street and tell them your private information," he said.
"Don't give them your name, where you live, or your age, and make sure that if you interact with anyone, that if you don't know them, don't do anything that you normally wouldn't do with anyone you wouldn't know."
"A lot of these child offenders, they go where the children are. And these children are on video game systems, online gaming — and they're vulnerable in those positions," he said.
"They're approached by these people, they're lured, and they're groomed, and they're basically coerced into doing things they wouldn't regularly do."
Oleksiuk said child offenders can be very professional in their approach.
"They start off very innocently. They talk about the game, they talk about music, they talk about pop culture — everything that a teen they're targeting would know about and be into," he said.
"They ask grooming questions: 'What grade are you in school? I'm in the same grade. What sports do you play? I play those sports as well...' That's when the two 'friends' almost trust each other, and these offenders lead the children down a path that we know where it goes, and it isn't a good place."
Signy Arnason, the director of Cybertip.ca — a national tip line to report the online sexual exploitation of children — said once that initial contact is made through the gaming console, it's not hard for a situation to escalate.
"It's very easy for kids to get into that space. If you talk to me nicely, maybe you're funny, then you're my friend. So, I'm suddenly handing out my cell phone number, then I'm texting with the individual. Then it leads into, 'Well, send me a picture of yourself.' Then it leads into, 'Send me a nude picture of yourself,'" she said.
"Threats can be utilized. So, for example, I may say: 'Well you know, I'm going to tell your parents that you've engaged in this.'... That can be used against you, and then the whole thing starts to unfold from there."
Arnason said online video game luring is not a new phenomenon. The issue has been on the organization's radar since 2005.
Cybertip.ca receives about 1,500 calls from Canadians each year. Arnason said about 10 of these calls over the past 12 months have been passed on to police for further investigation.
She said while luring is typically targeted at around 70 to 80 per cent for girls and 20 to 30 per cent for boys, luring via online video games is almost a 50-50 split.
But Arnason said it's typically adults coming forward on the kids' behalf.
"If I have gotten myself into a bit of a precarious situation as a child, my biggest fear is: 'I don't want these things taken away from me.' So, I'm less apt to tell my parents that I'm communicating with someone that I don't know, that may have resulted in a sexual image being shared. I'm embarrassed, potentially humiliated, and the last thing I want is this gaming environment to be taken away from me," she said.
Arnason said that responsibility falls to parents.
"It's our responsibility as adults to be paying attention to this space, talking to them about the importance of personal information, and [about]
communicating with others that they don't know," she said.