BY ALEXANDER WILLIS
Spring Hill Detective Michael Foster and Criminal Investigator Lee Eaves with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department gave a crash course on internet safety Monday night as a means to communicate to parents how to keep kids and teens safe from online sexual predators.
Held at the Refuge Church in Spring Hill, the presentation covered all the latest phone applications kids and teens use today, how they can be exploited by sexual predators, and how to keep those kids and teens safe.
“I don’t want to be too overblown, but I really do think it’s an epidemic,” Foster said. “It’s all about education, it’s all about having [an] open dialogue with your teen and setting boundaries.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTips (NCMEC), a national centralized reporting system for suspected child sexual exploitation, saw over 10 million reports in 2017, with that number “growing exponentially each year,” according to the NCMEC.
During the pre-smartphone era in the mid 2000s, online sexual predators would mostly troll online chatrooms and instant messaging applications such as Yahoo Chat and AOL Instant Messenger. Today, kids and teens with access to a smartphone have virtually limitless ways to communicate with the outside world — and by extension, limitless ways they too can be contacted from the outside world.
The most frequently used social media applications used today are Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, though dozens more are often times used by today’s youth such as Kik, Whisper and WhatsApp. One of the first pieces of advice Foster shared with parents was to be able to best protect children, parents should understand how the more popular chat applications work by doing their homework. Foster also advised parents that they should have access to their children’s social media accounts.
“I’m not going to say you can’t give your 7 year old a smartphone, I don’t know what age is appropriate, that’s a parent decision,” Foster said. “But my advice to you is, you should not give them full range of that smartphone. There [are] some parents that don’t know the code to get into their own kids phone — that’s not a good thing. It’s not being nosey, it’s parenting. Going through their phone randomly is probably one of the better ways to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
One of the most common misuses of social media apps, Foster said, was sexting, which is essentially transmitting sexually explicit material through the use of a telecommunication device. Under Tennessee state law, it is against the law to transmit a photograph or video of sexually explicit images of a minor, even if the recipient is another minor. While such use does violate Tennessee law, when in the case of a minor sending explicit photos or video to another minor, it is only considered an unruly act, similar to delinquency or running away from home.
Sexting can also lead to something much worse, Foster warned, something he called “sextortion.”
Sextortion is essentially the act of extorting someone for explicit material through the use of threats, and is a serious crime whether it be done by a juvenile or an adult. A class D felony in the state of Tennessee, Foster said the best way for parents to avoid having their child extorted for explicit material is to ensure that first photo or video is never taken.
Foster further explained that once either a sexual predator, or even another juvenile has one piece of explicit material, in the case of sextortion cases that individual will often threaten to send that photo or video to friends and family unless more explicit material is sent. Eaves hammered down the point that the best defense to this is to communicate with children and teens to never take explicit photos and videos of themselves, and definitely not share them with anyone if they do.
Sextortion is on the rise nationally, with the NCMEX reporting a 90 percent increase in sextortion reports between 2014 and 2015, with 78 percent of the victims being female, and the average age of the victim being 15.
Another danger, Foster explained, is the misconception that communications made using Snapchat are safer, as the application is designed to delete communications between users after a set amount of time. The misconception lies in the fact that there are simple ways to circumvent this feature through taking screenshots, third-party applications, or even taking a picture of the screen using another camera. And once an image is out there, Foster warned, it’s nearly impossible to be undone.
Foster even warned that popular online games such as Fortnite and Roblox can potentially be used by sexual predators to gather identifying information. Foster advised parents that the best way to keep kids safe in the gaming world is to communicate with them to never share any personal information with strangers online, or to use the security features on said games to disable voice chat.
One of the more dangerous crimes that can occur online is the solicitation of a minor. Solicitation refers to an instance where an adult over the age of 18 communicates with a minor in an attempt to engage in sexual activity. The majority of solicitation cases, Foster said, occur on social networking sites, through a technique called “grooming.”
Grooming refers to the process in which a sexual predator gains the trust of a juvenile, and can be done by exploiting the juveniles natural curiosity, offering gifts, and using emotional manipulation techniques to further entice the juvenile to engage in sexual activity.
Foster said some of the signs that a child or teen may be being groomed are if they suddenly are receiving gifts, calling unknown numbers, rejecting family and friends, getting upset when not online and attempting to hide their phone or computer screen away from others.
Ultimately, Foster said in today’s world, it’s almost impossible to divorce kids and teens completely from technology, and that the best way to keep kids and teens safe is through educating them on the dangers the internet can pose, as well as being an informed parent on the ways kids and teens communicate today.
“Predators will go after the kids that have a poor relationship with their parents, the ones where they’re afraid to go to their parents and talk to them about anything because they feel like they’re going to be in trouble,” Foster said. “The best defense to all this is an open, healthy relationship with your parent or guardian.”