Eagle County Sheriff: Teach kids about stranger danger online, as well as in ‘real life’ (column)
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Our cellphones have given us total freedom and expanded our world. Google allows us information on anything within seconds, we can order just about anything on the planet with Amazon and our appliances and cars remind us that perhaps we aren’t nearly as smart as they are. It’s no wonder these devices never leave our hands. They are addicting, and we love it, but at what age should we addict our children?
Kids get bored in the summer; even those with jobs will seek a distraction. Many have friends away on vacation and may occasionally feel lonely. A smartphone maintains a connection to their world. Exchanging photos helps share special moments while they are apart. The caution comes when our children cannot reach their usual contacts and begin exploring the web.
Just as we teach our kids to be wary of strangers at home, we must also warn them of dangers online. Happy emoji, cute photos, fun posts, shared games and common interests are all inviting, which makes strangers seem like friends — they are not.
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Children make friends by sharing interests, hobbies, favorite restaurants, music, movies — all of the things they would like to experience with a friend. Unlike in person, when it is done online, you are uncertain with whom you are conversing.
On social media, even when cautious, simply posting photos, events, pets, stores, restaurants, sports and such creates a composite profile that makes it easy for anyone to identify and locate a specific person, often right down to the time of day.
In my last column, I wrote about how Silicon Valley leaders won’t allow their own children access to smartphones and social media accounts until their teen years. They know firsthand of the benefits but also the dangers associated with the platforms they create. Yet peer pressure is high; when kids’ friends are making plans online, those not connected are excluded by default.
To address those concerns, Facebook Messenger for Kids was created. The app was designed for younger children. It has no ads, the child is limited to contacts listed by the parent and messages are available for supervision. It provides messaging and video chats using Wi-Fi, so no phone number is needed. It appears to be a nice alternative, but it still promotes addictive behavior.
Teens with social media accounts are aware of their many features but sometimes naive of the necessary cautions. They may not realize that whatever is posted lives in the digital realm forever, even if deleted on their end. Those fun party pictures may find them explaining to a potential employer that all those beer cans or other paraphernalia weren’t really theirs. That dare from friends to post a provocative photo may resurface years later and create unanticipated challenges, which could cost them that special relationship or dream job.
While policies are changing, social media platforms generally consider anything posted on their sites to be public information and available for distribution anywhere in the world. The same applies to “sexting,” which can re-emerge years later, requiring embarrassing explanations. Do they really want their most intimate and awkward moments “going viral”?
With depression on the rise, some attribute the increase to how exciting other’s lives appear on social media, compared to their own. It’s helpful to remind them that no one posts photos of their worst days and everyone has them. That casual picture may be the 20th they took before deciding to post it.
Most teens know not to give out personal information online, but in a desire to connect, they may want to accept a meeting with that favorite online video game partner. Yes, it could be a fellow high-schooler or perhaps someone pretending to be. Predators will spend months cultivating relationships online to gain the trust of an insecure child, preying on vulnerabilities. They will gather enough information to present themselves as a new best friend, while creating suspicions and barriers to existing family and friends.
Social media is a sexual predator’s delight. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that 83 percent of victims eventually met their sex offenders in person and willingly went with them. They responded to 10,093 possible child sex trafficking reports in 2017. That would be like one of every five people from Eagle County every year, and these are our children. A parent’s worst nightmare is the thought of their child’s face on one of those missing posters.
Predators will convince kids to keep their “friendship” secret. Be aware of acronyms such as POS (parent over shoulder) or LMIRL (let’s meet in real life) in your child’s communications. Refer to my earlier column and search websites for those acronyms that are current and popular.
Summer is a time of fun and relaxation. Online opportunities can add to that pleasure, and staying connected to friends is one of those joys. But just as in the 3D world, we must remain aware and vigilant of potential dangers. Stay safe and happy.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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