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  • Mom Poses As 11-Year-Old Online. One Hour Later, 7 Men Had Initiated A Conversation

    This brave mom posed as a tween to pin down online predators.
    by Dahl D. Bennett .
Mom Poses As 11-Year-Old Online. One Hour Later, 7 Men Had Initiated A Conversation
PHOTO BY iStock
  • With so many social media apps out there, it can be hard to keep track of what our kids are using these days, especially beyond the popular Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Many apps are specifically designed for young teens like Kik, Discord, Whisper, GroupMe, Snapchat, and Tiktok.

    Yes, we know, half of them you’ve probably never heard of, and you are thinking your kids may not even be on them. But are you sure? Because online sexual predators are counting on parents' ignorance about these apps. They are using it to connect with them, and one mom went undercover to show parents how predators try to groom kids and lure them into unthinkable acts.

    The mom is Roo Powell, a 37-year-old with three who leads the Special Projects Team at Bark, a tech company committed to child safety that provides parents smart tools they can use to help protect their children online.

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    Powell’s undercover work was turned into a short documentary (scroll down to watch) for parents to see just how quick online predators are at victimizing innocent children. “Abuses are accurring quietly and mostly go unreported, and we want the parent to know exactly what we know about what happens online,” Powell says, lending the voiceover to the 9-minute documentary.

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    To help identify and catch sexual predators, Powell, together with the Bark team, created two fictitious girls: Libby, 15 years old, and Bailey, 11 years old. Both have social media identities that Bark launched online. The video shows Powell, small-boned and petite, dressing up and acting like the ages of the fictitious girls she plays for two separate undercover assignments.

    With the help of a graphic designer, her photo was manipulated, making her look over two decades younger. Powell for her part bought clothes and accessories and studied the body language and facial expressions of teens. The company then coordinated with the United States federal state and local law enforcement to intercept conversations between Powell and potential predators.

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    Once the social media accounts were uploaded, the difficult part of Powell’s work began.
    In just an hour, seven men had initiated a conversation with “Libby.” That number became 92 men by the end of nine days. The pattern of conversation ranged from sexual comments to sharing and requesting explicit photos and videos, to manipulation and threats.

    “The onslaught was so massive it took five of us to play Libby to keep up,” Powell says in the documentary, referring to members of the Bark team. 

    It took only a minute and seven seconds for the first man to contact “Bailey” who, in her profile, admits she is “afraid of the dark and hasn’t had her first crush yet.” Almost always, they tell her, “don’t be shy” and would ironically call her “baby.” Their ages were on display in her social account.

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    In their conversation, Powell’s team finds a pattern in the script these predators often use:

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    “Don’t be shy.”

    “I love your pictures here. Do your mom and dad let you have a boyfriend?”

    “You’re so pretty.”

    “You should be a model.”

    “I’m older than you.”

    “What would you do if you were here, baby?”

    Other lines are just too explicit and equally disturbing. Still, Powell, apart from the documentary, which was produced more than two years ago, also wrote in detail about her whole undercover experience using the pseudonym Sloane Ryan. She notes too that requests for a meet-up were particularly present for 15-year old “Libby.”

    “The brutal reality is that the predator doesn’t have to be in the same room, building or even country to abuse a child,” Powell says in the documentary. “Libby and Bailey may not be real, but they represent countless children who are being sexually and psychologically abused both online and in real life. I think how I would have felt as a young impressionable child. I would have kept the abuses to myself for fear of being ashamed and blamed. I would have suffered with it secretly  and quietly.”

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    Powell’s work has led to numerous arrests, but she points out in the documentary that it is just a drop in the bucket. “Our work nor the work of law enforcement or legislation will never be able to protect children in a way that engages parents and guardians can,” she adds.

    Based on the whole experience,  she gathers this advice for parents:

    • Talk to your kids early and often.
    • Know what apps they are using and with whom they are communicating
    • When facing a crisis, kids need a soft place to land. Make sure they know they can come to you for help.

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