It’s a terrifying problem that keeps getting worse.

As the COVID-19 health emergency drags on, many Garden State children continue to spend more time at home in front of their phones and laptops. Many are being being stalked by online predators.

John Pizzuro, the commander of the State Police Internet Crimes against Children Task Force, says at this point last year his team had received 4,100 tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But the number so far in 2020 is 5,829.

“Screen time and the amount of time that children are spending online is adding to what is happening today,” he said.

He noted children are frequently targeted while they’re playing games or on social media. Pizzuro said parents don’t realize those other “kids” on a gaming platform may actually be adult predators looking for their next victim.

Pizzuro said predators will spend significant amounts of time grooming their victims, giving them attention and compliments as they work to build a trusting relationship before asking kids for sexually explicit pictures and videos.

“So when you’re talking about a 7, 8 or 9 year old, they are going into their own bathroom or their own bedroom and they are taking these videos and then sending it to those individuals," he said.

He said mom and dad may very well be home when this is going on but the problem is “parents are addicted to their devices just as much as children are. Screen time hasn’t just increased for children, but adults as well.”

He said most parents would keep a keen eye on their child in a playground or near a construction site, “but when you’re in your own bedroom or your own living room playing a game, you cannot see the danger.”

Experts believe that the reason for the increase in tips is because there is more online activity, not necessarily because there are suddenly more cyber-stalkers.

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