By Doug Galluccio, Detective for the City of Charleston Police Department
As a detective who often sees the negative impacts of the internet on children, I feel that education is a major component with regards to internet safety. The internet provides an opportunity for children to learn, explore their world, and socialize with friends. By understanding the potential dangers your children face, you can more easily communicate with them about having safer digital experiences.
There are so many positive things that children can encounter online, including new ways to learn and connect with the world around them. However, being online and vulnerable can also put children at risk for “grooming”, the solicitation of children for the purposes of sexual abuse and exploitation. Grooming involves getting close to them and gaining their trust, which is easy to do online. It is easy for offenders to hide who they are and to find children, for example via chat forums focused on things young people like or games that provide chat functions.
Watch the video to learn about the concept of public and permanent.
Perpetrators form relationships with children, often times pretending to be children themselves and seeking to become friends with their victims. In that process perpetrators may also resort to threats and blackmail (“sextortion”) in order to pressure children into submission. Modern means of coercion include manipulation of social media profiles of the victim. Young females appear to be at higher risk of becoming the target of sexual solicitation than young males. In contrast, offenders tend to seek to establish mutual trust with male victims.
Implementing just a few safeguards can go a long way toward keeping your children safe. Here are some general tips and guidelines taken from Darkness to Light and the FBI’s Guide to Internet Safety:
- Do not underestimate the level of sophistication that an abuser will use to approach your child. Pay attention to all downloaded apps and their capabilities – even ones that do not seem to be chat-related.
- Smartphones and tablets have a “location services” feature which allows devices to broadcast their location to the users’ apps and contacts. Make sure this feature is turned off to ensure your child’s whereabouts remain private.
- If you discover questionable communications from your child to an adult or other youth, remain calm. Talk to your child without accusation and with the goal of resolving the situation.
- Report sexual solicitation, bullying, or child pornography immediately to your local law enforcement or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cybertipline.
- Children under eight should have direct supervision while using computers, smartphones, and devices. Know which games, apps, and learning tools have communication and chat capabilities.
- Keep children’s personal information off online profiles and talk to them about what information is private and shouldn’t be shared.
- Parents should use their name and email for when signing up for games or services. This ensures that they are the primary contact rather than the child.
- Talk frankly with children about inappropriate questions and language. Use age-appropriate examples and tell them to come to you if anything uncomfortable or questionable is said.
- Set reasonable time limits on computer, smartphone, and device use, and when possible, limit use to common areas of the house where parents or caregivers are present. To protect children, set privacy settings to the highest levels.
- Talk to children about the apps and services they use, and how they use them to communicate. Pay attention to games and gaming systems, which often have online communication capabilities. Chatting can be an enjoyable activity that accompanies digital fun and learning, but it requires oversight and parental involvement.
- Monitor texts, messages, and other digital communication, and explain why this is necessary as one step to protection. Abusers use sophisticated grooming tactics that may be above children’s level of understanding. By monitoring communication, you are in a better position to identify a situation if it does occur.
- Talk to your children about topics like sexting and cyberbullying. Explain the potential long-term consequences of sending sexual messages and pictures. Tell children if they hear of this happening or if anyone sends them an inappropriate communication – no matter whom – to tell you immediately.
- Talk to your teens about the dangers and permanence of communication sent digitally, including on social media and blogs. Explain that applications like Snapchat that claim to delete images and messages still retain them, and that private messages and comments are actually public, and can easily be shared.
- Periodically monitor device use, including emails, photos, messaging, and app use. Make sure teens understand this is not to punish, but to protect. Investigate apps that may assist with this to alert you when your child is online and communicating with strangers.
- Let your children know they can come to you if they ever have questions about a communication, or if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable.
Make sure children know:
- Never to chat with someone they do not know, or arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone who contacts them through an app or online service, even if they claim to be another youth or friend of a friend.
- Never to give out identifying information such as name, home address, neighborhood, phone number, school information, or extracurricular organizations and activities.
- Never to post public photos of themselves, send photos to someone they do not know, or send explicit/inappropriate photos to a friend or significant other.
- Never to download pictures from someone they do not know, as there is a good chance they could be sexually explicit.
- Never to respond to messages or posts that are suggestive, obscene, bullying, or harassing.
One of the most important things that parents can discuss with their child is that it is not the child’s fault if anyone attempts to sexually exploit their child online. Children are easily vulnerable online and often will become targets by their own peers. Open communication and involvement is the key to all of this. Get comfortable with technology and help your children embrace their digital world!
For tips on keeping kids safe in a digital world, download our new Digital Safety Resource.
Doug Galluccio is a Detective for the City of Charleston Police Department assigned to the Special Investigations Unit, Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and a Task Force Officer for the United States Department of Homeland Security, Child Exploitation Investigations Unit.
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