When Kate’s 13-year-old son took up Minecraft and Fortnite, she did not worry.
The video games were hardly Grand Theft Auto — banned in their home because it was too violent — and he played in a room where she could keep an eye on him.
But about six weeks later, Kate saw something appalling pop up on the screen: a video of bestiality involving a young boy. Horrified, she scrolled through her son’s account on Discord, a platform where gamers can chat while playing. The conversations were filled with graphic language and imagery of sexual acts posted by others, she said.
Her son broke into tears when she questioned him last month.
“I think it’s a huge weight off them for somebody to step in and say, ‘Actually this is child abuse, and you’re being abused, and you’re a victim here,’ ” said Kate, who asked not to be identified by her full name to protect her family’s privacy.
Sexual predators and other bad actors have found an easy access point into the lives of young people: They are meeting them online through multiplayer video games and chat apps, making virtual connections right in their victims’ homes.
Criminals strike up a conversation and gradually build trust. Often they pose as children, confiding in their victims with false stories of hardship or self-loathing. Their goal, typically, is to dupe children into sharing sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves — which they use as blackmail for more imagery, much of it increasingly graphic and violent.
Reports of abuse are emerging with unprecedented frequency around the country, with some perpetrators grooming hundreds and even thousands of victims, according to a review of prosecutions, court records, law enforcement reports and academic studies. Games are a common target, but predators are also finding many victims on platforms like Instagram and Kik Messenger. The New York Times reported earlier this year that the tech industry had made only tepid efforts to combat an explosion of child sexual abuse imagery on the internet. The Times has also found that the troubled response extends to the online gaming and chat worlds, where popular and successful companies have created spaces that allow adults and children to interact, despite efforts to create some safeguards.
There are tools to detect previously identified abuse content, but scanning for new images — like those extorted in real time from young gamers — is more difficult. While a handful of products have detection systems in place, there is little incentive under the law to tackle the problem, as companies are largely not held responsible for illegal content posted on their websites.
“Our society says we’re going to protect kids in the physical world, but we’ve yet to see that in the same way on the digital side,” said Steven Grocki, who leads the child exploitation and obscenity section at the Justice Department. A spokesman for Discord said in a statement that the company had a “zero-tolerance policy for any illegal activity.”
“No parent should have to worry that their child is exposed to inappropriate content,” he added, “and we deeply empathize with the challenges that families face in protecting their children online.” Six years ago, a little more than
50 reports of the crimes, commonly known as “sextortion,” were referred to the federally designated clearinghouse in suburban Washington that tracks online child sexual abuse. Last year, the center received more than 1,500. And authorities believe that the vast majority of sextortion cases are never reported.
There has been some success in catching perpetrators. In May, a California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for coercing an 11-year-old girl “into producing child pornography” after meeting her through the online game Clash of Clans. A man in suburban Seattle got a 15-year sentence in 2015 for soliciting explicit imagery from three boys after posing as a teenager while playing Minecraft and League of Legends. An Illinois man received a 15-year sentence in 2017 after threatening to rape two boys in Massachusetts — adding that he would kill one of them — whom he had met over Xbox Live.
“The first threat is, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m going to post on social media, and by the way, I’ve got a list of your family members, and I’m going to send it all to them,’ ”said Matt Wright, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security. “If they don’t send another picture, they’ll say: ‘Here’s your address — I know where you live. I’m going to come kill your family.’ ” The trauma can be overwhelming for the young.victims.