Kids today communicate differently. Textbooks and class notes are digital. Conversations happen through messaging and apps. Pictures and videos are shared in an instant. They have “friends” they’ve never actually met and access to everything in the world on a device they hold in the palm of their hand.
Technology is powerful. But it can also be dangerous.
RELATED: 10 apps parents should watch out for
Ashley has a 12-year-old daughter. We’re not using her last name for privacy’s sake.
“She started acting a little moody and her grades started to drop,” recalled Ashley, talking about her daughter’s shift from her norm.
“I would come check up on her on the computer every so often and she would just click everything out.”
One night, Ashley’s 12-year-old daughter vanished. Neighbors reported seeing her get into the car with a man. Police got involved. An Amber Alert was issued. Ashley desperately searched for information and was able to figure out her daughter’s password for an online game and found a recent conversation between her daughter and an unknown man. This was a clue for police. Someone who’d seen the Amber Alert spotted Ashley’s daughter with a man off of I-70 near St. Louis. He had driven 1,400 miles to pick up her daughter. He’s now in jail.
Ashley says it’s a miracle her daughter is home. And she’s still trying to process the fact that her daughter did what she did even with all she had taught her.
“I really did not think she would ever fall down that trap, and uh…any child can.”
"Unfortunately, the Internet is a great place for predators to hide. So you can be whatever you want to be," said Vicki Anderson, an FBI special agent with the Cleveland division.
Anderson said her colleagues are constantly working local cases that involve Internet predators preying on kids.
"Every time, we've ever had a child missing, the first thing we look at is what social media were they on, what computers or phones they had access to," Anderson added.
Some of the most popular apps kids are using are Snapchat, Instagram, and musical.ly.
Twitter and Facebook are still prevalent but aren’t always the preferred apps.
Some of the lesser-known apps which have come up in our conversations with experts and families are the games Onigiri, ROBLOX, and Minecraft. DISCORD, a chat app for games, is another.
Fake Instagram accounts are popular but often troubling. Teens call these accounts their “finsta” (for fake Instagram). These are often private accounts with fake names, and teens’ behavior is often much more intimate and risky on them.
"There are so many things out there for a kid to see so we really need to be parents and step in there and take control of that and know what our children are doing," Anderson said.
In a matter of seconds, Anderson warns that an innocent teen can be caught up in a potentially dangerous situation. Take, for example, this transcript below of a real chat between a teenager and a man who's just friended her on Facebook. The teen's dad shared his daughter's initial conversations in hopes of helping other parents understand how the chat unfolds and how quickly it can become sexual in nature.
Girl: How are you
Man: Iam board and looking for something to do
Other than that I am fine
Girl: that’s good, and same here, I’m just watching my baby brother so not too much happening. I’m (gives name) btw, nice to meet you.
Man: Iam (gives name) how old r u
Girl: I’m 16, and you?
Man: I gotta go I will erase ya Iam 30 sorry to bother you but I feel like a creepo now lol
Girl: lol its ok I don’t mind just talking, but if you’re still going to go that’s fine, nice meeting you
Man: Well I don’t want to be labeled
And I’m a flirt and don’t want to get in trouble
Girl: I won’t label you, I’m not like that and plus you seem like a nice guy.
Man: I am very nice and iam a good person too so if u want when u turn 17 ill talk and maybe flirt but I stay outta trouble and I well I just want to say ur a cutie pie so have a gr8 nite wish u was older
Or I was younger lol
Girl: lol ok that’s perfectly fine I understand, and thank you you’re sweet, also if you ever wanna chat I’m here whenever, and ill be 17 on (gives date) (so if I text you by then that’s why lol) and I hope you have a great night, too.
Man: Well if u want ill be here too and ill totally be ur friend till then and then ill be ur present lol hope to keep in touch let’s keep it between us tho if we do please
The next time these two chatted, he asked to see pictures of her as she’s about to shower. She mentioned Snapchat.
Read a letter from the girl's father and more of the chat he shared:
Therapists who work with teens see the same signs over and over when talking with girls who’ve found themselves in a difficult situation online.
“At first it gives them what they want, that boost of self esteem – a boy that’s trying to get with them, or whatever it may be -- but as they realize that becomes more problematic, that self esteem takes a nose dive,” said therapist Rachael Dekoning.
“And that fuels a path toward other mental issues like depression, anxiety, internalization of that experience which can lead to self harm, eating disorders, you name it,” said Dekoning.
Many times young girls have a hard time admitting what’s happened.
“Sometimes what that can lead to is teenagers feeling judged when they go to their parents. There’s more accusations or judgment or lecturing that happens rather than a sense of understanding and support and openness,” said Dekoning.
Watch the video below to see Dekoning explain how to avoid the teen/parent battles in conversations and situations.
Kids talking to their parents is vital, but the FBI also hopes you’ll talk to law enforcement. They say to report any type of enticement situation your child has experienced online.
“Less than 10 percent of these crimes are even reported to any kind of law enforcement. We can’t work a case if it’s not reported,” said Michael Daniels, FBI special agent and member of the agency's child exploitation task force in the Kansas City, Missouri region.
“You may have just that little piece that we’ve been waiting for to get a subject that we weren’t able to get before, or we may prevent ten more kids from being victimized because you came forward with that information,” he continued.
Daniels explained how grooming happens, or how a predator befriends a child with the goal of a sexual exchange:
“The thing with the internet is there’s so many children out there using different things they can kind of start targeting one after another. And so they’ll (child predators) go to a gaming site or an interest of theirs they may have and just start looking for kids. And then they’ll put out little feelers and say okay would this person be open to my grooming, my advances. If they say no or they get kind of backlash real quick, they can move on to the next, and the next, and the next. And eventually if they go through enough kids, they’re going to find one that’s a little receptive and then they start developing the grooming process.”
So what can you do to protect your children?
Darrin Jones is the new Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Kansas City office.
Jones recommends these basic first steps:
- Do a simple Google search for “how to protect my kids online”.
- Research parental settings on devices, apps and computers.
- Learn about the top apps and how they work.
- Have conversations with your kids.
- Explain to them why you’re doing what you’re doing
- Know your kids’ passwords for their devices and check them randomly and regularly.
- Set up parental restrictions on phones and devices.
- Set up DNS filters to block inappropriate content from coming into your home or devices (several experts have recommended Open DNS)
“This technology has taken us to a space where I think a lot of parents have disconnected. Where never in a million years would we let a 13-, 14-year-old walk out of the house and say ‘where are you going’ and the kid says ‘never mind it doesn’t matter.’ No parent would do that. But we’re doing it with technology,” said Jones.