Channel 9 is taking a deeper dive into an important safety issue in our community.
Local police are cracking down on sexual predators soliciting children online. A former assistant US attorney who prosecuted these cases told Channel 9’s Erica Bryant they’ve seen so much of this they’re calling it an epidemic.
In response, Bryant put together some expert advice on how parents can protect their children. If your child has a phone, tablet, gaming system, or any device with a communication feature, here are some tips.
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‘If you download it yourself, you’ll taste much better’
“For every parent, what I would recommend is to do your own research, find out what apps kids want to use or are using,” said Cortney Randall, a former assistant US attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. “Download it yourself, find out how to block someone, what information is publicly available, how to make friends with someone, if you can hide anything, have secret accounts. If you download it yourself, you’ll know much better what they’re using.
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“Talk to your kids repeatedly, constantly. Share news with them. Share the press releases with them so they understand that this is really happening to other kids in our community. And the repercussions of this: Talk to them about how they can lose control of an image or text or anything they send someone, because once it’s there, they have no control over where it goes or who sees it. And make sure they understand how serious that is.
“And finally, in that communication with your child, make sure you have a strong relationship with them so that when they see something inappropriate online, because they will see it, they know that they can come to you and talk to you and let you know what they saw. Because unfortunately, sometimes kids get scared and embarrassed, or they’re afraid they’re going to get in trouble. And they end up getting more and more into trouble. And this can have some pretty drastic and terrible results.”
Parents turn to other options to keep kids safe
Some families are making their homes completely screen-free. They say parental controls don’t work because kids just find a way around them.
Melanie Hempe, a local nurse, promotes parenting without social media and video games after her eldest son became so addicted to gaming that he dropped out of college. She says that she researched how technology affects dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol in the brain. She later launched a nonprofit called Screen Strong to give parents another option.
“We have a 14-day challenge and we have a 30-day challenge. And we help parents back down. So maybe he’s made up his mind, he’s looking back, he’s thinking, ‘My God, I never should have given my eighth grader that phone,’” Hempe said. “So we help parents take a step back, we educate them just on the basics of this piece of science that is really important. And then we walk you through the steps: how to remove it and how to get your children back. Because we lost our children.”
(LOOK: The former AUSA shares how parents can help their children use online platforms safely)
‘It can come from anywhere’
“We’ve seen talks with kids as young as eight or nine, all the way up to 17 years old,” says Randall. “We see them coming from different parts of our community. We see kids that have been solicited through their Xbox or online games, it’s not just the apps.
“So parents need to be aware that it can come from anywhere, it can happen to any child, so they need to be proactive in what they can do to protect their own children.”
>> What online platforms do children and teens use and how can they do so safely? Click here to read more.
‘I always advocate for parents to be very involved’
“I think this is extremely important, because for me, being able to involve parents is our first line of defense in preventing a child from being a victim,” Randall said. “So I always advocate for parents to be very involved when it comes to this.
“When it comes to a specific family, they’re going to have to look at their own family unit, decide what kind of rules they’re going to have, if and when they’re going to add the use of a particular phone or app. they can use it, or how long they can use it, or how old they have to be to use it.
“So when it comes to making those personal decisions, what I advise is to think about [this]: He would never leave his front door open and would let anyone in the world come through his front door, go up to his son’s room at any time of the day and night, close the door and be there alone. But if you let them have a phone or a tablet or internet access, that’s what you’re doing if you’re not monitoring it: some behavior, putting some rules or restrictions just like you do on who visits them in person, because anyone can access that device.”
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Teen Health Connection has a free online course “Teens and Technology” for parents to help them learn how to better protect their children in this age of social media. Click here for more information. You can also click here to learn about other courses they offer.
Screen Strong has resources for parents who want to get their kids and/or families off social media altogether. Click here for information. Screen Strong also has information for parents interested in getting a phone for their kids that isn’t a smartphone. Read more here.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children also has a cyber tip line that you can call if you find something suspicious that you want to report. To protect your child or other children, the police want to hear from you. Call 1-800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678). You can also report online by clicking here.
Common Sense Media put together a list of the safest social media and messaging apps for kids. You can click here for more information.
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