FAIRMONT — We’ve all heard of the dangers involved with children and social media. But it bears repeating that the dangers are very real. While people shouldn’t live in constant fear, appropriate steps should be taken to keep our vulnerable young people safe.
Police Chief Mike Hunter shares some information on the issue and provides guidance on how families can work together to avoid a sad story later on.
“Last spring and during this current school year we saw a large increase around the country in students using distance learning via the internet,” he said. “Students continue to become very familiar with the internet and that creates opportunities, but it also creates some concerns. We often refer to the new normal as studying and working from home and being isolated from our regular social interactions, which finds people turning to the online social platforms for some type of social interaction and a means to keep in touch with friends.”
Hunter notes that it’s common for parents to see smartphones glued to their children’s hands, and shares that his family is no different. He said it’s very important to be aware of children’s online activity to help keep them safe.
“One recent statistic shows that approximately 70 percent of children in the US have a cell phone by the age of seven.” He also said that while the smartphone may have replaced the computer as a source of social interaction, some of the safety rules remain the same.
“There are several apps that parents can install on their child’s phone to monitor their online activity,” he said. This is not an invasion of privacy, this is just part of being a parent. Your goal is to keep them safe and help them make good decisions, and this is just one more thing to try and manage as the technology changes.”
He suggests parents “friend” their child on their social media platforms and have children share their passwords with the expectation that it is open for review at any time. This will allow parents to monitor their postings and interactions, as well as affording them the chance to see if someone is communicating inappropriately with their child.
“Any apps such as Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, and numerous others that allow for any sort of two-way communication between parties, including online gaming, creates an opportunity for unwanted behaviors from others that may have bad intentions.”
According to Hunter, cyber predators are adults who may pose as children or teens online with the intent to connect with actual children and teens through social networks, chat rooms, online games, and other messaging apps. They pretend to be someone else to gain trust.
“Grooming is the most common form of this by trying to break down barriers to get children and teens to feel comfortable enough to provide personal information, agree to send photos, or even to meet in person,” he said. “Phishing is another technique where they throw out some general questions on social media apps and if they begin to get responses, they start to steer the conversation towards their goals.”
Hunter also pointed out the technique of mirroring, where an offender mirrors the emotions of a child or teen to try and create a bond. They may say they understand how a child feels and offer to be a friend.
Hunter said that while such predatory techniques might not be obvious to children and teens, most parents will be able to sense if something is wrong. He recommends parents ask children to show them how their social media platforms work, noting that showing an interest in their online activities may keep the door open for clear communication.
For parents who want further information on keeping their children and teens safe online, they can check out the NetSmartz program from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at www.missingkids.org/netsmartz. NCMEC also has a Cyber Tipline available for reporting attempts to exploit children on various social media platforms.