Is it possible to keep my child safe online?

The recent arrest of seven individuals on human trafficking charges involving two teenage boys they met through the online gaming app “Discord” has many parents at their wits’ end trying to understand how this could happen. Children and teens are at more risk than ever from online predators. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately one in seven youth internet users has received a sexual solicitation, and in more than one-quarter of these incidents, youths were asked for sexual photographs of themselves. Seventy-six percent of internet-initiated sex crimes have an initial meeting in an internet chat room, and the majority of the victims willingly meet their predator face to face.

Discord is not the only avenue being used by these predators to access victims. They are using Instagram, Kik, Snapchat, Facebook, Xbox Live, Minecraft and the list goes on. Social media and online gaming are so much a part of our culture now that just saying “Don’t let your child use the computer for those things” is naïve. That is probably not going to work for the majority of households. So, what will work? How can we keep our children safe from the evil lurking behind the computer screen?

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children gives the following tips:

• Research the games you buy for your children. You can do this at esrb.org.

• Keep your gaming equipment in the family area of the home, not in the child’s bedroom so they can be easily supervised.

• Make sure your child understands the importance of never giving out personal information to anyone on the internet.

• Set time limits for how long your child can play. Tell them who they can play with and what games they can play.

• Make sure they know to check with you before using a credit or debit card.

• Find out if the games your child plays have a feature that allows reporting of problems. Does it have a moderator?

• Make sure your child knows what to do if someone bothers them while playing a game.

• Check their social media account settings and make sure they are set to private.

• Check their social media accounts to see what they post. Are they posting pictures that are too revealing? Are they giving away too much personal information? Address? Phone number? If so, delete these things and talk to your child about them.

• Make sure you know all their passwords. Their privacy is not more important than their safety, no matter what they may think.

“Communication is the first thing that comes to my mind; vigilance is the second,” says Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office Community Relations Deputy Jack Nash.

“As a parent, you absolutely have the authority to have access to their account. It all hinges on trust. Before you even give them the green light to sign up for an account, you need to sit down with them and talk candidly and openly about the dangers of interacting with others online.”

Deputy Nash explains, ground rules need to be set up ahead of time, and there needs to be a time you set aside to audit what they have posted or downloaded. If it is a social media site, he suggests that the parent is also a “friend” or “follower” on the sites. This will assist the parents in keeping a watchful eye on the content their children are posting and/or viewing.

He absolutely believes that parents should have their children’s passwords and full access to their accounts. “Personally, that is something that was explained from the start with our children. As they get older, the trust builds; however, I still suggest an audit,” he says.

“In most cases they are way above the curve with technology than we are. That is something I have come to sadly realize with my own children. Remember there are many ways to ‘mask’ photos, apps and conversations. The aforementioned audit will allow you to see what’s on their device and do your homework on those apps.”

In a class offered through the efforts of the Okeechobee Children’s Mental Health System of Care and the OCSO on Tuesday night, Jan. 22, Deputy Nash went into even more detail. “It’s not about scaring your kids,” he said.” It’s about educating them.” He went on to explain you can’t control what others do online, but you can teach your child how to react to it. Explain to them about not clicking on pop-ups. Talk to them about never giving anyone their password for any reason. Kids are easy to fool, he said. A 50-year-old man can convince a child he is a young boy. Children think everyone is their friend. Explain to them not everyone is who they claim to be. In most games you can control the settings so the child cannot use the text feature if you choose to do so. You can teach your child how to mute conversations with people who are bothering him.

One of the most important things to do is to make sure you communicate with your child regularly. Tell him or her about the bad things that can happen and how to avoid them. Let them know it isn’t their fault. Make sure they know you won’t be mad at them. Deputy Nash says most children fear telling their parents when they encounter any type of online problem. They fear you will take away their games, their freedom to go online. They fear you will be mad at them.

Deputy Nash also stressed, if your child is ever bullied or is sent sexual pictures of themselves or anyone else, do not delete the texts, posts or pictures no matter how tempted you are, because having the evidence will make it much easier for the sheriff’s office to investigate the activity.

He also recommended talking to your children about being wise about the things they post online. “Children do stupid things. We all did stupid things when we were young,” he said, “but we did not have social media recording our every move.” He explained there have been so many cases in the news lately of young people losing jobs or scholarships because they posted something on social media and were found out. An athlete posts pictures of a party where everyone was drinking and loses his scholarship. A young woman posts a racial rant and years later loses a job when it is uncovered. “These things come back to bite you in the butt,” he said. “Don’t do it!”

The most important thing of all, according to Deputy Nash, is to be a good role model for your children. You can’t expect them to see you do something online or in real life and not do it themselves.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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