Burton Kelso figured that taking away his stepdaughter’s cellphone for a while would have been enough to discourage the teen from chatting online with strangers, sending them racy photos of herself or even arranging to meet some of them.
But shortly after restoring her mobile privileges, Kelso learned that the teen was back on social media, downloading various apps, creating fake online identities and connecting with worrisome individuals.
“Child predators are no longer hiding in white kidnap vans; they’re inside your living room on your child’s computer,” said Kelso, a Kansas City resident. “Computer technology makes it easier for online predators to target children and easier for them to groom one kid or multiple kids by just contacting them through social media.”
Researchers also say that most kids receive their first mobile device before their 12th birthday.
Ninety-two percent of kids between 13 and 17 go online each day, and about a quarter are online “almost constantly,” according to a national study released last month by the Pew Research Center.
Armed with mobile devices, teens have constant access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Kik that allow instant messaging and enable them to stay connected to their classmates, family and friends.
Yet, many teens using those apps engage in cyberbullying or sexually inappropriate conversations online with other teens.
These platforms also enable adults to pretend to be underage while interacting with teens.
Some crude online behavior has been linked to teen suicides, experts said.
While plenty of guidance — including tip sheets and websites devoted to the topic — exists for parents wanting to monitor their children’s Internet activities, there’s also a lot that can go wrong.
▪ In late March, Henry County, Mo., authorities charged 55-year-old Raymond Vallia III of Albuquerque, N.M., with kidnapping in connection with the disappearance of a 13-year-old from Montrose, Mo. They had maintained a secret online relationship. The girl had created several social media accounts, including one identifying herself as a 16-year-old. She was found in New Mexico. Vallia also faces federal criminal charges.
▪ Eight Liberty High School male students were recently suspended for sharing inappropriate material while at school. The images were found on student cellphones and other personal electronic devices. Some had been posted through social media outlets. Police are investigating.
▪ Last month, a Platte County judge sentenced 23-year-old Denis Aguilar to 18 years in prison after he “sextorted” a 16-year-old girl and threatened to post nude photos of her on the Internet if she didn’t have sex with him.
“Make no mistake: There are predators trolling the Internet, hunting for children,” said Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd. “It is natural for teens to push the boundaries and disregard the dangers of risky activity, particularly when it comes to the Internet.
“Just as good parents would not leave a child alone in a dark alley, parents should not leave children to fend for themselves in the dark corners of the Internet.”
Dangers lurk online
It was simply blind luck, Kelso said, that his wife one day picked up his stepdaughter’s iPhone and discovered several apps had been downloaded.
The stepdaughter became angry and embarrassed when Kelso and his wife confronted her.
Many teens try to hide their social media behavior from their parents, he said.
“It reminded me as a parent that you always have to be on your A-game and to make sure they are not doing things that they are not supposed to be doing on the Internet,” said Kelso, who now speaks to community groups on ways parents can monitor their children’s online behavior.
Most mobile apps are designed for adult users but are equally appealing and accessible to teens.
Many apps allow users to post messages anonymously and feature GPS software that enables them to track their targets. Such mobile apps often are linked to cyberbullying and expose young users to pornography and other inappropriate material.
Online predators frequently use these apps because they make it easy to collect personal information from young users, such as their names, the names of their parents, where they live and where they attend school.
Online predators often create fake identities that make it difficult for authorities to track them. If discovered, predators often delete the detected profile and create a new one.
Many online gaming sites popular among teens allow instant messaging. But that makes it easy for teens to be propositioned by a fellow gamer who turns out to an adult. Sometimes, adult predators will not hide their identity and still try to proposition teens, experts say.
The Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTipline receives about 10,000 reports each day about cases of suspected child exploitation, online solicitation, child abuse, child pornography and other crimes. The group works with federal law enforcement to track down online predators and other criminals.
“Because technology has grown, it certainly gives online predators easier and greater access to children,” said Ju’Riese Colon, the center’s executive director of external affairs. “But because of technology there is a greater ability to report things and people are becoming more aware of what to look for and what to report.”
Locally, the FBI Child Exploitation Task Force investigates more than 200 cybercrimes each year. The Western Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force receives reports almost every week about a child getting unsolicited messages or pornographic photos from an adult.
“The problem is rampant and it is not going away,” said Sgt. Katherine Smith with the Platte County Sheriff’s Office.
What parents can do
Parents can battle these online dangers by going online themselves.
They can find tips and age-specific strategies to better educate young users on the dangers of online predators.
Groups such as the FBI and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children offer Internet safety tips, games and interactive links for parents and children.
In addition, many cellphone providers and manufacturers have created mobile apps or other devices to allow parents to track their children’s online activities.
Carolyn Van Ness of Olathe said she has downloaded some of the apps, but that alone isn’t enough to ensure her children don’t become victims to online bullies or predators.
“I rather be pro-active on the front end but there is no guarantee,” Van Ness said. “I tell them that I am doing this because I love you and I want you to be safe.”
Experts offer dozens of tips for keeping children safe online, including:
▪ Parents should set ground rules and boundaries on when and how long children are allowed to use the Internet or their mobile devices.
▪ Personal computers should be in a high-traffic area of the house, where others can see them, and not in a child’s room.
▪ Parents should know whom their children are connecting with online.
Van Ness frequently reviews the apps her children download. On one occasion, she took away one of their smartphones after learning a password had changed without her approval.
“There is a fine line between scaring your children and educating your children,” Van Ness said. “So I am cautious and careful about the words that I use.”