Sergeant Jeff Zech Franklin County ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) Task Force Commander presented a workshop at the 32nd Annual Intercourt Conference on internet safety and awareness. We’ve attended and brought our readers information from previous conferences and a variety of different speakers/points of view, but things are always changing. The task force collaborates with 14 investigators and 12 agencies including suburban and Federal agencies such as BCI, Homeland Security, sheriff and police departments, US Attorney’s Office and Prosecutors Office. Since 2009, they’ve arrested over 620 sexual predators who target children on the internet; this year 700 alone. The task force is nationally ranked at #2. On the surface, we know from Pew Research Center that ‘94% of teens who go online using a mobile device do so daily.’
The OAH February 2016 report, ‘Teens’ Social Media Use: How They Connect & What It Means For Health shared the observation that “teens share a lot of their personal information. A survey of over 600 teens from 2012 found that nearly all shared their real name and photos of themselves, and most shared their school name, birthdate, and the city or town where they lived.” Children given cell phones younger and younger (age 6) increase the potential pool of victims of predators according to Zech. He explained, the online risks for youth are: exposure to inappropriate material, sexual solicitation, harassment & bullying, and theft of personal information. Children are more vulnerable to predators when they come from broken homes, have problems in school or home, appear depressed, have little parental supervision and because they are easily persuaded.
Predators look for teens age 13-15, though kids as young as 7 to 10-and younger- are sought- any age, race or ethnicity is vulnerable. Predators will befriend and ‘groom a child’ with flattery, confidence, feigned interest, knowing children do sneak out, often go willingly, even if they tell the truth about their age. About 25% of the victims are boys, though most are female. There may have been a history of physical or sexual abuse, or a pattern of risky behavior in the child’s life. Zech said predators find their victims through social media, chat apps or chat rooms, classified ads, online games, Craigslist, Kik, Facebook and game apps like Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare. This is where the danger of posting images comes into play, and sexting. Teens might post risqué photos to be funny, impress a crush, share with a best friend, get attention, to humiliate someone, as blackmail or bullying or simply because they’re bored. The danger with ‘cyber’ + ‘bullying’ is that it spreads faster to a humongous audience, and it follows a child home. Threats or harassing comments, rumors, or fake profiles designed to humiliate can provoke school discovery or police involvement for telecommunications harassment, he summarized for the audience. [Pomegranate Health Systems has seen the fall-out from cyber-bullying cases at it’s acute hospital.]
Zech reviewed the anonymous chat website Omegle which randomly pairs users in one- on-one chat/video sessions using anonymous names with a screen capture feature. It advertises, ‘talk to strangers’. Tinder, the dating app has a GPS feature that pinpoints users within a mile of their location. You Now is a video streaming app/chat app/web cam with free live stream and users in chat rooms – no policing. Even Instagram can be a hunting ground for predators who take pictures off social media accounts for a creepy role play game with someone else’s babies and children. One new twist is called, ‘Exposing + middle school initials’ where the latest sext photos are uploaded, and it’s pretty easy to track down the school.
Zech advised that ‘first, parents should establish rules which social media a websites are allowed, who a child can talk to and establish time limits for device use and where they are allowed to use. A teen should tell an adult if they’re scared, uncomfortable, or confused. The most important thing is to communicate! Educate your kid about consequences. Juveniles can be prosecuted for distributing images of themselves or other juveniles.’ He advised to contact law enforcement if a child is sexually solicited. Preserve the evidence and do not impersonate your kid. Ask yourself, ‘why would my kid have 13,000 friends on Facebook? Kids think it’s cool to be popular, but you can’t know them all!’
Here are some additional resources:
[photo credit: author- Wrangler/Dreamstime #33292331]