You Need to Know About Online 'Bunny Hunters' -- & How to Protect Your Kids

young girl on a smartphone

They call themselves bunny hunters, and their sport is even more despicable than it sounds. They pose online as people they're not, sending messages and pictures to innocent "bunnies" -- aka our children -- in a hunt to lure, or coerce, them into sexual relationships.

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Though the term may be a vomitous new one to parents, we know people like this are out there. We see reports of police busting hordes of online sexual predators nearly every day -- teacherspastors, people from all walks of life -- and we know how many more must be out there lurking, uncaught.

Still, we want to believe they're not, and too often we fall into a state where we think, not our kid. We think maybe we've warned them enough, that they're smart enough, that they would tell us if anything like this began happening.

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However, with statistics showing that one in five kids will be the target of unwanted online sexual solicitation, we simply can't continue to think that way. From chat rooms to instant messages, bunny hunters are out there preying on our children's innocence and insecurities.

So how do we protect our kids from them? We talked to experts in the field to find out how we can truly prepare our children for the dangers that are far too likely to find them online -- how to make sure they aren't victims of bunny hunting. Here's what they said.

Communicate, communicate, communicate:

According to Kip Boyle, a cyber risk strategist, only 25 percent of kids who receive an unwanted sexual solicitation tell their parents. That means 75 percent of kids don't utter a word about it! How scary is that? Boyle offers these tips for getting kids to come to you when something is off:

- Your kids are most likely to come to you when something "off" happens if they believe you will sincerely listen and be supportive. Think about your track record at handling bad news, then start making small, manageable adjustments to your responses to increase trust going forward.

- If you think something unusual is going on, ask your kids pointed questions and watch for signs that they are avoiding the truth; then challenge them to be honest with you. Don't give up too easily!

Spy away:

Before buying your children a computer or device, you should make it very clear that you will be monitoring the device (never mind when your kids call you stalker), that you need to be able to meet new online friends, and that you will have all of their passwords.

"You've got to have the kind of boundaries and relationship with your kids that you can say, 'Hey, I was looking in your phone the other night and I see you went to this site. What was that about?'" Boyle says. 

Bonus: Your kids can use you as an excuse to their friends. "Sorry, my mom checks ALL my stuff." 

Role-play:

Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert and CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com, says role playing can be a powerful tool for parents. "Search news reports of incidents that have happened. Discuss them," he says. "Ask them how they would have responded or what they might do differently."

Unfortunately, you won't have to look very hard to find these stories, but the real-life nature of them as opposed to hypotheticals may be the wake-up call your kids need.

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The grandma rule:

"It's a simple rule that children should take into account on every single social media platform: Before posting anything, make sure their answer would be 'yes' if asked if your grandmother would approve," Siciliano says.

Of course if Grandma is some sort of free-spirited rebel, you may want to rethink this one, but it's a good rule of thumb for most.

Stress permanence:

It's one of the most difficult but most important things to convey to children: Anything you post online -- anything -- can and likely will live on forever.

"Deleting an image or comment doesn't mean it's removed from cyberspace," Siciliano says. "While it was up, it could have been shared and recirculated."

According to Siciliano, the number one rule is: Once it's online, it's permanently there, no matter what you do with it afterward. "Racy images and offensive posts may seem harmless now, but down the road can return to haunt the user when they apply for college, a job, or are in a lawsuit," he adds.

Privacy, shmivacy:

You think you got all the right software and set the right security settings, so your family should be safe, right? Think again. "Don't assume that just because the privacy settings are high, that only a very limited audience will view the posting," Siciliano says. "Somehow, some way, there's always a way for something to get out."

Set boundaries -- you're the boss!

Parents need to take charge and establish basic expectations for online use, and not throw up their hands and assume that this is just how things are today. "Just like you have a rule to keep them healthy that says 'always wash your hands before eating,' you need cyber boundaries like 'always give me your Internet devices when I go to bed,' 'I must always know the unlock code for your phone,' and 'no Internet devices in bedrooms so you get a good night of sleep,'" Boyle says.

Content filtering:

There are plenty of content filtering systems that can help keep your children out of sites where bunny hunters may lurk. Boyle suggests Open DNS Family Shield, which is free. However, software like that should not provide a false sense of security. "You can't just install a piece of software and walk away thinking that's going to keep your kids safe," Boyle says.

As terrifying as the threats out there may be, the good news is that taking these steps really can help protect your children from bunny hunters. It may involve some heated discussions, tears, and declarations that you're ruining their lives, but all of that is a small price to pay to keep them safe.

 

Image via iStock.com/serdjophoto

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