Tips to protect children and teens from online dangers: catfishing, sexploitation and anonymous predators

The family of the Riverside teenager who was trapped in a digital romance with a “catfishing” Virginia cop wants their devastating story to be a cautionary tale.

“In this tragic moment of our family, our grief, we hope it brings good,” Michelle Blandin, the teenager’s aunt, said this week. “Parents, please know your child’s online activity. Ask about what they are doing and who they are talking to; anyone can tell they are a other.

The case involved a 28-year-old law enforcement officer, who drove from southwest Virginia to meet the 15-year-old girl last week in Riverside, where he killed her grandparents and her mother, then set fire to their home, according to the Riverside Police Department.

He then drove with the teenager almost 200 miles until he was stopped by local officials and engaged them in a shootout. An autopsy this week found the suspect died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, officials said. The girl was not injured.

Police are still investigating how the couple met online and on what platform, but police say the suspect posed as a 17-year-old and worked to groom the teenager for an inappropriate relationship and operator.

Such incidents are all too common, say experts who hope this one will serve as a reminder for parents to have important conversations early and often with children about online conduct. It’s the best way, they say, to protect young people from the many dangers that can lurk on the Internet, from known and unknown predators, cyberbullying, sexual exploitation and other concerns.

“We need to talk to our kids about safety and make safe, smart decisions online,” said Callahan Walsh, a child advocate at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Is the Riverside tragedy rare?

Unfortunately, for people who work in this field, the answer is no.

“If anyone thinks that’s the exception rather than the rule, they’re dead wrong,” said Chris Newlin, executive director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center, which focuses on child sexual abuse. He said many details in this case happen every day – things like children being manipulated or fished online for sex – but other details make it more sensational, including the suspect being a law enforcement officer. of the order and the multiple deaths.

The rarest part of this case is that it came to light, he said.

“Unfortunately, this is something that happens every day in America,” Newlin said. “Sometimes we find out, but most of the time we don’t.”

A recent study from the University of New Hampshire revealed that approximately 15% of young people will experience some form of online child sexual abuse. Although predation often comes from an unknown person, Newlin said it could also come from someone a young person knows, such as a love interest or a new boyfriend asking for explicit photos.

Each year of the pandemic, there have been more reported cases of cyber threats as screen time among young people has increased, creating more opportunities for predators, Walsh said.

He pointed out that just because children are nearby, on the sofa or in their bedrooms, does not mean that they are safe from the online world.

“The pandemic has given many parents a false sense of security,” Walsh said.

When should parents start talking about online safety?

The sooner the better. Walsh said 10 is the average age children now have their own phones, meaning these conversations about internet interactions, best practices and threats should start long before that.

“Look for teachable moments and make sure those conversations happen early and often,” Walsh said. The Riverside tragedy can be an appropriate conversation starter, depending on your child’s age, but the most important thing is to make these discussions regular throughout everyday life, in the car, at the dinner table, he said. declared.

Robert Olsen, a Riverside Police detective assigned to the Riverside County Child Exploitation Team, said it’s important to remember that access to the internet or phone is a privilege parents can monitor and control.

“As soon as you put a digital device in your child’s hand, regardless of age…you have to get the child to get in the habit that this device isn’t theirs, it’s yours” , Olsen said. “And you will watch it whenever you want.”

Conversations can and should grow as kids get older, to include topics like cyberbullying, sexting, catfishing and even sextortion, Walsh said. But it also means parents need to understand these topics and the many ways they can play, from social media apps to video game communication, he said.

“Tell your kids who they’re talking about online,” Walsh said. “Who are they meeting? What activities do they engage in? Make sure your child’s digital life is understood by you, the parent.

How should parents talk about and monitor Internet conduct?

“It is absolutely impossible to monitor every little thing that young people do [online], and that’s unrealistic,” Newlin said. Teens will always want to hide parts of their lives from their parents, but that doesn’t mean parents should be in the dark, he said.

“Parents can and should have ongoing conversations about personal safety,” Newlin said. “On what to know, to be able to be informed about how people talk to children.”

Newlin recommended asking teens about certain scenarios in a “depersonalized” way, perhaps asking them if they have friends or know someone who has been contacted inappropriately online or who has engaged in sexts. Parents should also remind children not to interact with people they don’t know in real life. He said it’s important to give children options about who they can talk to about these issues, if they don’t feel comfortable coming to see their parents.

“As parents, we all want our kids to feel safe and protected,” Newlin said. “When we make them feel extra safe, they can suddenly engage in more risky behavior than they would otherwise.”

Helping children recognize what seems weird or scary is an important instinct to develop, he said.

What resources are available?

Olsen recommends parental controls or services that parents can use to limit access to certain sites or monitor activities in which children participate. He said it’s important to remember that “children are not allowed to have digital devices”.

Newlin pointed to his team’s website, the National Children’s Advocacy Center, which includes talking points and questions to start some of those more difficult conversations with children.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers animated, age-appropriate programming that can help engage children in online safety topics, as well as resources to help parents better understand threats, Walsh said. The organization also has a cyber threat reporting hotline at (1-800) 843-5678.

People can also call the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 hotline at (1-800) 656-4673.


Los Angeles Times

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