Predators' New Playground: How to protect your kids online

Predators' New Playground: How to protect your kids online

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by ANJANETTE FLOWERS / NBC Charlotte

WCNC.com

Posted on February 21, 2013 at 12:30 AM

Updated Thursday, Feb 21 at 2:10 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You might think your child is safe just because they're in the other room on the computer or because you've given them a smartphone to stay in touch with you.  Well, think again.

All of that technology can be both a blessing and a curse because predators are always looking for new ways to get close to your child.

These days a lot of kids have cell phones, computers or tablets and they're on some form of social media, not so much chat rooms anymore.

Just ask Gaye Fitzpatrick, a mom of three.       

"I know of second graders with cell phones at our schools," she said.

"I'm on Instagram and Twitter," said her daughter, 13-year-old Anna Fitzpatrick.

"I would say it's probably the number one topic of conversation amongst mothers of middle and high school kids," added her mom.

And all of that access to technology can be a parent's second worst nightmare.

"I've had mothers call me and say ‘Have you seen the picture on Instagram?" she said.

Special Agent John Wydra with the FBI says it's the new thing for kids these days.

"Kids are just sharing a ridiculous amount of information about themselves, personal information," said Wydra.

And with that sharing comes the risk of putting themselves in danger, especially when it comes to sharing too much because your child's definition of who they "know" might be different from mom and dad's.

"If you really drill down and ask your child what they know, they never met them.  They never physically met them.  They got pictures, but they don't know that's exactly the person that's involved," said Wydra.

In other words, times have changed.

"You wouldn't let a stranger into your house, but that's exactly what people are doing and they're letting them into their child's bedroom, which is worse," he said.

And even scarier, sometimes kids are leading these dangerous predators straight to their homes simply because they haven't set their privacy settings.

"You take pictures with your iPhone.  It's geo-located so now you've got software that allows a pedophile to know exactly where that picture was taken even if the child hasn't posted their home address. ‘Hey, here's a picture of me eating breakfast at home.’ They know exactly where you live now," he added.

That's why he says parents need to start teaching their kids about the dangers of being online as early as elementary school.

"Parents of kids in elementary school and middle school, they think their kids are too young, [that] it's too early to start addressing this issue.  Parents in high school, it's almost too late. We're already seeing them as victims," Wydra added.

In fact, Wydra talked about a case where a teenage girl became one of those alleged victims and the suspect, a 53-year-old truck driver from Mooresville, was arrested.

"Guy turns out to be extorting pictures of a girl out in Montana.  She thought she was talking to another teenage girl and they had exchanged very personal and intimate information and he used that to extort naked pictures from that same child by saying if you don't share this with me, I'm going to send all of this personal information about you to your entire high school," said Wydra.

It can be scary and overwhelming for any parent.

Wydra said, "It always comes down to communication.  We say it all the time.  If you don't pay attention to your kid, someone else will."

He also suggests monitoring what your child does.

"There's nothing wrong with putting spyware on your own computer and your own phone that you're allowing your child to use," Wydra added.

And he says it's okay to let your child know what you're doing instead of being sneaky about it.

Wydra said, "Trust but verify…Most kids today, their first sexual experience will be online.”

He added, "They're online and they take a picture of themselves in the bathroom mirror and they send it to their boyfriend or their girlfriend.  They talk about what they want to do."

Detective Kenny Lynch with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Police works closely with students and their parents about how to appropriately use the internet.

He remembers a case of some middle school girls in Charlotte.

"Some young girls on the cheerleading team having spent the night, had taken some inappropriate pictures of each other and posted it on Instagram," he said.  "And those pictures went viral.”

"I get a lot of parents that just really were not aware of the activity their kids are up to, not aware of the geo-tagging, the pictures.  You'd be surprised how many just don't understand. They don't realize the technology they're giving their kids," Lynch said.

As for the kids, "The fact is, kids are going to be on the internet.  That's their life.  It's a great tool.  It's a way to learn.  It's a great way to educate our kids, but just like anything else, you don't hand them the keys to a car when they turn 16 and haven't taught them how to use it," Lynch added.

Wydra's advice?

"No parent should allow their child to have a computer in their bedroom, ever," he said.  "When the kid's online, it should be at a kitchen table where you can walk in and see the screen instantly.”

"Every phone's got a camera on it now," he said. "The phone should be left to charge in the kitchen, not brought up to the bedroom to charge."

As for Fitzpatrick and her family, she says, "It's such a double edge sword because you can't turn the clock back.  You can't take the technology away."

Her 12-year-old daughter, Tara, would certainly agree.

"Me and my friends, if we're doing something we'll post a picture of ourselves," she said.

It's pretty much the same for her 10-year-old brother, Liam.

"The biggest element is obviously protecting them from people they don't know," said Fitzpatrick.  "And the second part of it is making sure that they're using it in a morally correct way.”

And Fitzpatrick admits that can be challenging.

"There's no manual on how to do it and the minute you figure one thing out, another piece of technology comes along that you've got to figure out again," she said.

The key, says Lynch, is to "try to stay one step ahead of your teenager, which is going to be difficult in itself to do."

But Fitzpatrick is certainly trying.

"You do what they call creeping. You creep on them," she said.  "And we have to know the codes, so I can sit and look if I want at what is being sent in.”

Lynch's advice--think twice before hitting the send button.

"Ask yourself a few questions. Is this a picture I would want my mother to see?  Is this a picture I want my pastor to see?  My teacher to see? And if you answer those yes it's okay for them to see them, then you're okay," said Lynch.

(FBI website for parents and kids to learn more about online safety)
 

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