SOUTHERN UTAH – In a world gone digital, keeping kids safe from online predators, and information they may not be ready for, can be a daunting task; but with open and honest communication, research and help from the digital world, parents can create a safer environment for their children to learn and play online.
One Southern Utah teen learned firsthand how easily innocence can be manipulated – and lost – through social media.
The young man’s mother, Tina Lewis (name changed to protect victim’s identity), said neither she nor her 14-year-old son could have anticipated the events that changed his life forever in late 2011.
Earlier that year, Lewis said, her son met a woman on Facebook. She was older and lived in California, but that didn’t stop the teen from falling for her. As the relationship progressed, the woman asked Lewis’ son to send pornographic pictures of himself, promising to send him photos in exchange. Lewis had no idea it was happening.
Eventually, the woman told the boy she was planning a visit to Southern Utah to see him. She said she wanted him to meet some of her friends who lived in the area so that when she arrived, they would have friends in common. Wanting to please his new love, the 14-year-old agreed and snuck out to meet her friends – a choice that will haunt him forever.
There was no woman, Lewis said. The “friend” turned out to be a 26-year-old man who had fabricated a Facebook account to lure young boys. After picking up the 14-year-old, the older man fed the teen “copious amounts of alcohol,” Lewis said, and spent the night raping him.
“The things he went through mentally,” Lewis said. “He had to go to therapy …. He came back asking, ‘Am I gay, mom?’ – not that there is anything wrong with being gay – he was just so confused, because he was violated.”
After a two-year prosecution process, the man who enticed her son was charged and convicted, Lewis said. Though the trial is over and the offender is in prison, the Lewis family’s personal hell goes on.
“You know, (the offender) is in prison and he’s not with his family,” she said. “Is he going to be there forever? No. But will my son live with this forever, and will I live with this forever? Yes, we will – forever.”
According to the Teen Safe “Parenting Guide to Tech Safety,” 90 percent of teenagers today have access to the Internet and they spend an average of five hours a day surfing the web. Of this 90 percent, 73 percent are engaging with some type of social media on the Internet like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Children today have unlimited access to the Internet, Enoch City Police Sgt. Mike Berg said. Berg works closely with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
“My very first cell phone was in 1994; it was big and bulky and it had 30 minutes talk time,” Berg said. “Nowadays we have unlimited talk, unlimited text and unlimited Internet at any given time.”
Modern MP3 players are not like the ones that previous generations grew up with, Berg said; and the same goes for all tablets, video game players and basically anything that can obtain a Wi-Fi connection.
The technological generation gap today leads parents to wrongfully assume their children are safer on hand-held devices than on computers, but dangers are everywhere.
At a young and impressionable age the Internet can expose children to a variety of pitfalls that could dramatically impact their understanding of the world around them. Adult content is easier for children to come across than a parent might think.
Cedar City mother of five Angielinia Olson said she doesn’t have Internet access in her home, so she was shocked when her 11-year-old son came to her a year ago and shared that he had been looking at inappropriate content online – images she described as soft porn.
At first it was an accident, she said, he had gotten stuck in a series of pop-ups he couldn’t get out of while playing a game. Later, she said, he sought it out. He told her everything, because he felt too guilty to be baptized, she said.
Olson’s son told her he accessed the content at the Cedar City Library in the Park and at his school, Gateway Preparatory Academy, by typing suggestions into Google’s search engine, she said.
“I, for some reason, thought that the public library had filters, and that there were certain kinds of things that weren’t allowed to go through,” Olson said, “because there are so many kids who have access to that place.”
Access to inappropriate content at the Cedar City Library in the Park is not impossible or even rare, library Director Steve Decker said. The library currently uses a keyword filter called iboss, he said, but it is far from fail-proof.
“We filter in requirement(s) with both state and federal law,” Decker said. “The law says that if we are to receive state and federal funds we have to filter, and so we do.”
With 45 separate public computers all connected to the Internet, Decker said, it is difficult to monitor the activity on all of them. Chances are, anyone viewing inappropriate content didn’t just stumble upon it accidentally, Decker said; they would have to be actively seeking the information.
Olson said her son found a way to get around the filters at school, which allowed him to access the material he wanted to see without being caught.
Methods used to protect students online change frequently to keep up with intelligent youth who are constantly finding ways around existing filters, Gateway Preparatory Academy Principal Andy Burt said.
“Filtering and Internet safety is kind of a living thing,” Burt said.
Gateway Preparatory Academy’s technology director, McKay Thompson, said as soon as he became aware of this particular issue, he took immediate measures so it could not happen again.
“Last year, the school purchased licenses for GoGuardian to help manage our devices,” Thompson said. “It actively blocks sites based on keywords and sends me an email about the content that is trying to be accessed.”
Protecting children online
“Parents need to be just as educated, if not more educated, about electronics than their kids,” Enoch City Police Chief Jackson Ames said. “If you don’t, they can run circles around you – they know how to hide stuff, they know how to block stuff.”
In addition to setting firm boundaries and talking to children regularly about online dangers, Ames said, parents should also place household computers in high-traffic areas of the home and only allow the use of hand-held devices in those same high-traffic areas.
“You need to put some type of filtering software on everything,” he said. “Put it on the cellphone; put it on the computer, the tablets – that’s really where parents need to start.”
Various applications and software options exist now to help parents monitor their kids’ online activities, Ames said. Depending on what a parent finds, differing degrees of monitoring can be implemented from there.
“You can track the keystrokes of everything they are typing in,” he said. “It can log it and it can send you that data via email, via text … so, the sky is the limit.”
Here is a list of websites available to help parents monitor and filter and control the time that their children spend online.
- K9 Web Protection – “a free Internet filter and parental control software for your home Windows or Mac computer”
- Covenant Eyes – “… create custom block and allow lists, or block the Internet completely at certain times of day”
- Teen Safe – Allows parents to view texts (even the ones that have been deleted), track children’s locations, view calls, and monitor social activity
- SecuraFone – Prevents distracted driving by keeping teens from emailing and texting while they are driving, monitors driving speeds, tracks location of user and files location information for up to 90 days
- Lawmakers revisit distracted driving laws, consider changes
- Attorney General Reyes, Google Execs meet on internet safety – 2014
- Perspectives: Who remembers life before the Internet? – 2014
- Child Predators: The Online Threat Continues to Grow – 2011
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