Over 20 years, the Amber Alert system has helped rescue 830 children. But the list of missing kids is still too long to imagine and I get a sick feeling in my gut every time my phone starts doing that weird buzzing that can only mean one thing: Someone has abducted a child.
And so it was last week when we learned an 11-year old Utah boy had left his bed in the middle of the night. Police suspected a 37-year-old man had enticed this elementary school-aged kid to leave his home. The boy and the man had met online.
I started looking up cases with similar scenarios and my jaw dropped. I scrolled through page after page of recent news stories of young people disappearing or suffering assault after meeting up with someone they had met online.
Why is this happening at such an alarming rate?
Wired Safety explains that between the ages of 13 and 15, kids are vulnerable, impulsive and looking for approval. In fact, it reports the biggest number of cases of sexual exploitation by an adult happen to 13-year-olds. Young women, in particular, can be flattered by the attention and flattery of older men. But sometimes, the adult on the other end of the internet connection is posing as a teen. In the anonymous world of the web, there is often no way to be sure until it’s too late.
Dr. Jennie Noll is the director of Penn State University’s Network on Child Protection and Well-Being, and her studies show 30 percent of teenagers report meeting someone in person after chatting with them online. They also admit not fully confirming the identity of that online acquaintance before arranging the face-to-face meeting.
After an Alabama girl met someone on an app and disappeared, cyber investigator Mike Trotter warned WSFA News about teens and technology. “Anytime they have a device, it’s just like having a predator in their bedroom with them. You’re inviting the outside world into your house to communicate, a lot of times, in an unmonitored, unrestrained fashion,” he said.
Parents, it’s time to get tough. Children often feel entitled to have their gadgets, to have texting abilities, to have gaming consoles, to have access to any app they want. Having these things is not a right for children. It is a privilege that we grant them as their parents. And we get to make choices about what types of technology are OK for our kids to use. It can get tiring. Believe me, I’ve had the Snapchat argument with my teens over and over, but I will not cave. My kids will survive and flourish, even without Snapchat or anonymous apps on their phones.
For children under the age of 13, parents can easily deny them access to social media because, actually, it’s the law. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others require users to be at least 13 years old. That means, if your 12 and under child has an account on one of these networks, either they lied about their age, or you lied for them. Vine and Yik Yak have an age 17 requirement. So if your high school sophomore has a Vine account, they shouldn’t. I realize every child is different and some are ready for certain technology while others aren’t yet. But why expose them to a wide open, often dangerous online world before you have to?
Diana Graber with cyberwise.org gives the perfect reasoning why age limits matter: because children’s personal information is at risk. If parents lie about their kids’ ages so they can get social media accounts, it gives those companies permission to gather all sorts of information about that user. Websites can track crazy amounts of data on your child, including specific location information, phone numbers and photos.
Become familiar with potentially dangerous apps and don’t allow them on your kids' gadgets. It’s easy to do a Google search on a regular basis to find out which apps are causing issues among teens. Then, inspect your kids’ phones to make sure they don’t have those apps. Use family sharing plans if needed to control what apps your kids download.
Keep apps away from your children that allow people to be completely anonymous like Whisper, Ask.fm, After School and Yik Yak. Apps that encourage meet-ups with other people in your geographic area can be sketchy, too. Kik and ooVoo are just a couple that have school districts, police departments and parents on alert across the country for making it so easy for predators to reach out to children. The app Omegle shouts its objective right on the website: “Talk to strangers!”
These types of apps and — don’t forget — online chat rooms are asking for trouble. Be aware of what your child is doing on their devices. Be familiar with the apps they use. Know their online friends and make sure they are real-life friends too, not just someone they met in cyberspace.
Amy Iverson is a graduate of the University of Utah. She has worked as a broadcast journalist in Dallas, Seattle, Italy and Salt Lake City. Amy, her husband and three kids live in Summit County, Utah. Contact Amy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn.