What predators look for in photos of children posted online
ERIN Cash left her job with Queensland Police's Task Force Argos over 10 years ago, but what she learned about paedophiles and how they prey on children has haunted her ever since.
The task force's job was to bust paedophile rings, but ultimately they were there to find children who were victims of sexual abuse and remove them from harm.
It took Erin a long time to write about her experience.
"Police can't talk about cases while they're open and actively trying to prosecute the offenders," she tells Kidspot.
"There's also a culture where only the highest level of police talks to the media."
It's also distressing to revisit memories of children being abused.
"Images and situations from my career haunt me. There was a time when I would physically hit my head and moan to stop the memories," she writes.
There's one incredibly distressing image that Erin just can't wipe from her memory.
"There is one photo in particular that I remember which causes me pain daily - a six-month-old in just a nappy with the most beautiful, angelic smile laying on a bed, and a naked man entering the baby's bedroom," she writes.
"This child looked like my babies, your babies. And the horror that I could not reach through that screen and save that child scratches at my brain."
"I don't want to create a culture of fear, and in fact a child under 16 is more likely to be offended against by someone they know than by a predator who spends time grooming them," she says.
But she says it's important to be aware of the ways parents can keep their kids out of the gaze of predators.
Erin cautions parents of young kids to think carefully about what they post online. Photos of kids in underwear, bathers or in the bath should obviously not be posted online. But predators can manufacture a lewd or pornographic photo out of the most unlikely scene.
"A paedophile or predator will not play fair, nor will they think like the average person," she writes.
"They therefore look at images and their erotic potential differently to how the average population does."
Erin says predators find photos they can alter to make children look like they are part of a sexual act irresistible.
"These photos can be altered to have a male person in the photo in a state of arousal. Or they can simply overlay a lewd comment so that the photo becomes a paedophile photo meme."
Photos of children of social media celebrities are also a valuable commodity, partly because there are plenty of photos available to share and alter.
"The more photos posted and the more coverage the images gain, the more likely they are to come to the attention to paedophile groups and be subjected to their monstrous conversations and attentions," Erin says.
"These photos become a platform for imaginings, fantasies and lewd behaviours. The internet has now allowed predators to openly discuss their fetishes - they now have a place to normalise and strategise dysfunctional thoughts and fantasies."
When asked if there are any photos that are safe to post online, Erin responds with a story about a private Facebook group she helped to shut down.
"These closed groups on Facebook post photos of young kids, sometimes taken in countries like Thailand or Vietnam," she says.
Often the kids are naked, although the photo might not appear to be sinister.
"They also post photos of young girls and boys in bathing suits," she says.
"It's not something parents would look at and worry about until you start to see the comments."
Commenters have "favourite models", and are clearly sexualising the children in the photos.
"A child doesn't have to be naked or in a state of undress, it just depends on what the men find to be provocative."
"No one wants to get into the mind of a paedophile," Erin says.
But if you can manage to think a little like them, you might see how that photo you posted to Instagram of your kids cuddling on the bunk bed could be thought of as not so innocent by a sick, dysfunctional mind.
Erin advises parents to judge each photo carefully before sharing it online.
- Is there enough room to superimpose another figure into the image?
- Are they in a state of undress (even with emoticons placed modestly - these can be removed and body parts can be Photoshopped in)
- Do you have a public social media page? Paedophiles can develop child crushes, and the child does not have to be posed or in a state of undress for the photo to become a commodity
There's another set of rules for teenagers:
- Duck faces and posed photos are used as baseline trading images on predator sites
- Swimwear and underwear shots become more valuable
- If their account is public then the predator ring can approach friends (or enemies) of the teen and pay money for more explicit photos
Although it's important to be mindful about potentially exposing children to predators, Erin believes the dysfunction begins when the predators themselves are children.
"We're so sterile, and get so scared to talk to our children about sex," she says.
Parents struggle to have frank conversations with children about sex, and inadvertently make kids feel shame and embarrassment about sex.
While that alone doesn't lead to paedophilia, it contributes to a culture of shame where kids feel embarrassed to come forward if they're abused, and potential abusers feel afraid to ask for help.
This article originally appeared on Kidspot and has been republished here with permission.