Earlier this year, I was a guest speaker on a panel hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women. The topic was how parents and grandparents can be more vigilant in protecting our children from predators who lurk online seeking to abduct or abuse unsuspecting youth.
I sat next to Autumn Ceci, a Southfield police officer who investigates sex crimes and human trafficking, and a local psychologist. We each spoke about how the internet has helped those who seek to harm young people and made it easier for them to hide behind secret identities online.
Keeping children and teens from being deceived online is a serious issue that can prevent human trafficking or sex abuse.
I was prepared to share with the audience ways to protect our children when they’re using social networks and video games, but I was unaware of how widespread the issue of human trafficking has become in the Digital Age.
Online multiplayer action survival games, like the very popular “Fortnite-Battle Royale,” are dangerous as they pose severe risks to children and teens. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) stated that it believed Fortnite was putting children at risk of online grooming. A news story reported that a mother overheard attempts to groom her 10-year-old son through his Xbox videogame console as she sat on the sofa next to him. She heard an adult male address her son by name through her TV speakers and ask him questions about sex. In another story, a mother discovered an adult male asking her 12-year-old son to perform sex acts on him and for the boy to take and send naked images of himself. These and other reports prompted many schools nationally to issue warnings to parents.
At the panel moderated by NCJW, it was clear that many of the parents and grandparents in the room hadn’t realized just how common it is for young people to be targeted online by predators posing as other people in chatrooms, on social media sites and in video games.
I recommended several ways adults should monitor and protect children using technology.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Install the Life360 mobile app on your phone and your kids’ phones so you can monitor their location. My wife and I use this app to see where our kids are and to make sure they’re safe.
- Make sure your kids always keep their location settings (GPS) turned on. They might turn “Location Services” off to preserve their battery or because they want their privacy; but safety should always come first, and you can use their mobile device as a tracking beacon in the event of an emergency.
- Tell your kids if their phone’s battery is about to die, they should text you the phone numbers of a few friends or adults they are with. This should become routine so that in the event you can’t get in touch with your children, you have responsible people close by you can communicate with about their wellbeing.
- If you’re at a crowded venue with your kids/teens (malls, concert, amusement park, etc.), use a GPS tracker (like Tile) to keep track of them. For teens, you can place Tile (or a similar tracker) in a wallet or bag while it might be wise to sew one into a younger child’s jacket or shoes.
- Make sure all your children’s social networks are kept private. There’s a reason most social networks require users to be at least 13. Keep in mind that the 12-year-old girl following them on Instagram might actually be a 55-year-old predator.
- Remind your kids/teens to never agree to meet someone they were chatting with online IRL (in real life) or reveal their address or whereabouts.
- Remember that it’s not only apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Kik that have messaging capability. Your kids can also be chatting with potential sexual traffickers or abductors on other apps like Twitcher and in popular live-action video games like Fortnite.
- Know what your kids are doing online. Look at their YouTube viewing history and at their text messages (especially group SMS). Your desire to keep your kids safe trumps their right to privacy!
- Know the popular abbreviations kids/teens are using when they text/message their friends. Something that looks innocent like the number “9” is a code for their friends that there is a parent in the room. This abbreviated text messaging language changes often so try to keep up with the secret ways they’re communicating with their friends.
- Consider getting a wifi system like Gryphon to protect your kids from online threats. It filters content, enforces safe search, monitors browsing history and more.
As parents, we would be foolish to think we can keep our children and teens completely safe from the many dangers they face on the internet. However, we can take action to keep them relatively safe from those who seek to do them harm.
Rabbi Jason Miller, a local educator and entrepreneur, is president of Access Technology in West Bloomfield. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.