How to protect kids from online catfishing, sexploitation

The family of the Riverside teenager tricked into a digital romance with a Virginia “catfishing” cop wants their devastating story to be a cautionary tale.

“In this tragic moment of our family, our grief, we hope something good comes of it,” Michelle Blandin, the teen’s aunt, said this week. “Parents, please, please know your child’s online activities. Ask questions about what they’re doing and who they’re talking to; Anyone can say they are someone else.”

The case involved a 28-year-old law enforcement officer who drove from southwest Virginia last week to meet the 15-year-old girl in Riverside, where he killed her grandparents and mother and then set their home on fire, according to the Riverside Police Department.

He then drove the teenager nearly 200 miles away until he was pulled over by local officers and involved in a shootout. An autopsy this week found the suspect died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, officials said. The girl was not hurt.

Police are still investigating how the couple met online and on what platform, but police said the suspect posed as a 17-year-old and worked to place the teenage girl in an inappropriate and exploitative relationship.

Such incidents are too common, say experts, who hope this incident will serve as a reminder to parents to have important conversations with children about online behavior early and often. This is the best way to protect teens from the many dangers that can lurk on the internet, from known and unknown predators, cyberbullying, sexual exploitation and other concerns.

“We need to talk to our kids about safety and make safe and wise choices online,” said Callahan Walsh, children’s advocate at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Is the Riverside tragedy unusual?

Unfortunately, for people working in this field, the answer is no.

“If anyone thinks this is the exception rather than the rule, they are dead wrong,” said Chris Newlin, executive director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center, which focuses on child sexual abuse. He said many of the details in this case happen every day — things like children being manipulated online or fished for sex — but other details make it even more sensational, including the suspect, who is a law enforcement officer, and the multiple deaths.

The most unusual thing about this case is that it came to light, he said.

“Unfortunately, that happens every day in America,” Newlin said. “Sometimes we find out, but most of the time we don’t.”

A recent study conducted by the University of New Hampshire found that approximately 15% of adolescents experience child sexual abuse online. Although the predators are often unfamiliar to someone, Newlin said it can also come from someone a youngster knows, such as B. a love interest or a new friend asking for explicit photos.

Each year of the pandemic has seen more and more cases of reported cyber threats as screen time has increased among youth, which has created more opportunities for predators, Walsh said.

He pointed out that just because kids are around, on the couch or in their bedroom, doesn’t mean they’re safe from the online world.

“The pandemic has given many parents a false sense of security,” Walsh said.

When should parents start talking about online safety?

The sooner the better. Walsh said 10 is the average age at which kids are now getting their own phones, meaning these conversations about internet interactions, best practices and threats should start long before that.

“Look for educational moments and make sure those conversations happen early and often,” Walsh said. The Riverside tragedy can be a suitable conversation starter depending on your child’s age, but the most important thing is to have those conversations regularly during daily life in the car or around the dinner table, he said.

Robert Olsen, a Riverside Police detective assigned to the Riverside County Child Exploitation Team, said it’s important to remember that internet or phone access is a privilege that parents can monitor and control.

“Once you put a digital device in your child’s hands, no matter how old they are…you have to get them used to the fact that this device isn’t theirs, it’s yours,” Olsen said. “And you will watch it whenever you want.”

The conversations can and should evolve as children grow older and include topics such as cyberbullying, sexting, catfishing and even sextortion, Walsh said. But that also means parents need to understand these issues and the many ways they can unfold, from social media apps to video game communication, he said.

“Talk to your kids about who they’re talking to online,” Walsh said. “Who do you meet? What activities are they involved in? As a parent, make sure you understand your child’s digital life.”

How should parents talk about and monitor internet behavior?

“It is absolutely impossible to monitor every little thing young people do [online], and it’s unrealistic,” Newlin said. Teens will always want to hide parts of their lives from their parents, but that doesn’t mean parents should be left in the dark, he said.

“Parents can and should have constant conversations about personal safety,” Newlin said. “What things to consider, to be informed about how people approach children.”

Newlin recommended interviewing teens “anonymously” about specific scenarios, perhaps asking if they have friends or know someone who has been inappropriately contacted or sexted online. Parents should also remind children that they should not interact with people they do not know in real life. He said it’s important to give children the option of who to talk to about these issues if they don’t feel comfortable coming to their parents’.

“All of us as parents want our children to feel safe and protected,” Newlin said. “If we make them feel very safe, they can suddenly behave more risky than they would have.”

Helping kids recognize what feels weird or scary is an important instinct to develop, he said.

What resources are available?

Olsen recommends parental controls or services that parents can use to restrict access to certain websites or monitor what activities children participate in. He said it’s important to remember that “kids aren’t entitled to digital devices.”

Newlin pointed to his team’s website, the National Children’s Advocacy Center, which has talking points and questions to start some of those tougher conversations with children.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has age-appropriate animated programs that can help get kids interested in online safety issues, as well as resources for parents to better understand the threats, Walsh said. The organization also has a hotline to report cyber threats at (1-800) 843-5678.

People can also call the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 hotline at (1-800) 656-4673. How to protect kids from online catfishing, sexploitation

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