Van Beek: Keeping teens safe online
For all those who once had an account on MySpace … the world has changed.
For many of us, Facebook changed the way we communicate with friends. In fact, we never knew we had so many friends until we began posting on this website. We also discovered the word “frenemy,” which later became anyone that disagreed with us.
However, the ability to chat and share family photos and events with people that we knew and those we simply shared common interests with, even across the world, was incredible, and it could be done in real-time.
Social media has changed the way we interact online and provides an ability to interact and participate in events, in real-time. And, because we are able to define common interests through groups, we can connect with “friends” and immediately establish a familiar bond.
As social media expanded, we shared not only personal stories but also opinions on global events. We soon discovered what was acceptable to share and what wasn’t. In case we were confused, social media platforms would remind us by blocking certain content. We’ve discovered precisely how much “monitoring” was done by the recent releases of the “Twitter” files.
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Having said that, most of us, over a certain age, feel pretty social media savvy just from our experience with Facebook, Twitter, photo-happy Instagram (who knew there were so many ways to photograph food), and the popular video site YouTube, but in reality, we have no idea how the social media space has expanded. Yet, there are so many more social media and messaging apps with new encryption technology, making monitoring and tracking dangerous predators more difficult.
According to the Pew Research Center, “For many teenagers, friendships can start virtually, with 57% of teens meeting a friend online.” That would be wonderful if everyone they met were as they appeared.
Part of engaging with strangers is the possibility of sexual assault on children. It is increasing, even in Eagle County. Many of those connections are made on new social media apps, and particularly distressing is the encryption and immediate disappearance of messages.
When a child engages with a predator, thinking it is another child, and parents are unaware of these conversations, it makes a young person susceptible. A parent’s desire to teach responsibility and respect privacy must be weighed against risk. We must remember that children, even high-school-aged, do not have the awareness and perspective of adults. They must learn how to be social media “street-smart”.
Yet, unless we understand the parameters of these new platforms and have frank conversations with our children about their advantages and abuses, we cannot arm our kids with the necessary tools to protect themselves.
We hear about cyberbullying, which is much more common, but neglect to address the very real issue of “stranger danger.” Because young people are so trusting, they tend to divulge to an online “friend” personal information that could endanger them and even their family.
We have become aware of the importance of not telling people about upcoming vacations or posting photos that indicate that we are not home, thus, making an empty house a potential invitation to robbers. However, when a child publicly talks about their school or sports schedule, or their parents being away for the day, or where they are meeting a friend, or the park where they go jogging, they are also alerting potential predators of their location and when they might be alone.
This is particularly significant because oftentimes, the predator disguises themselves as an online friend. Because these people are so engaging, kids have a hard time distinguishing an online “friend” as someone at school or in the neighborhood that they simply have not yet met.
Rapes, kidnappings, and human trafficking are not simply things that occur in the movies … they happen in real life, even in our “happy valley.”
Speak with your children and teens about safety issues. Lay a foundation of trust, where they feel free to speak with you about conversations they are having with friends online or within the community that may seem odd to them or makes them uncomfortable. Predators look just like everyone else and even go out of their way to appear friendlier.
Awareness is key. According to Investopedia, the top 10 social media apps are Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WeChat, TikTok, QQ, Douyin, and Sino Weibo. You probably have never heard of some, yet they engage anywhere from 500,000 to 3,000,000 users. Not all are as they appear.
Encryption and disappearing text are the most popular to keep messages from being shared … which also makes them ideal for those who want to be digitally invisible. The most common apps we see being used for “secret” texting are WhatsApp and SnapChat. According to tech websites, they mention Telegram, Signal, Viber, Silence, Wire, Dust, CoverMe, Threema, Cyphr, WickrMe, Mattermost, and Line and the best “secret” messaging apps. For kids, this seems fun, but for predators, these are in their cyber toolkits. Remember that video games also have chat options that can be incorporated into their gameplay.
Keeping track of your teens’ accounts can be challenging. For example, they can create false identities linked to new email accounts that then become untraceable. Or they can use existing options such as Finsta, which is short for Fake Instagram, allowing multiple accounts. Setting one up is easy, just go to settings and click, add account, and they can easily switch between them.
We have investigators who specialize in tracking online predators and sadly, investigating crimes against children. Please help to make their jobs unnecessary.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at email@example.com.