Powhatan detective offers tips to keep youth safe online

The “Hidden in Plain Sight” seminar offered adults who frequently interact with youth resources such as classes, tips on identifying risky behaviors, and connections with vendors who work in the field. Detective Austin Schwartz offered a session on keeping youth safe online.

POWHATAN – During a recent program about giving adults information and resources on how to understand and be aware of risky youth behaviors, one of the programs focused on internet and social media safety.

Detective Austin Schwartz led the session, which was offered as part of the “Hidden in Plain Sight: Toddlers to Teens, Treatment, Trends, and Tactics” program on Wednesday, June 26.

He offered adults in attendance information on trends to be aware of and resources that could be of uses.

Some of the issues that can put youth at risk he addressed included:

* Sexting – Schwartz cited a study that had found that 31 percent of teens reported having received a nude or semi-nude photo from someone else. About two-thirds of these photos are sent between a couple initially, but many are later shared, especially if they break up. Sexting can escalate into cyber bullying or even illegal harassment after a relationship breaks up. Schwartz also warned of the issue of these photos, which are usually of minors, being transmitted, which is a criminal offense.

*Cyber bullying – This offense involves bullying through internet applications and technologies such as instant messaging, social networking sites, and cell phones. Common forms include flaming and trolling (sending or posting hostile message to inflame emotions); happy-slapping (recording someone being harassed or bullied and posting it online); identity theft/impersonation (hijacking someone’s online account to send or post incriminating or humiliating content); photo shopping (doctoring digital images so they are compromising or embarrassing); physical threats, and rumor spreading.

*Video games – Predators have been known to use video games to target children. They pose as other children, teens or individuals children might trust to start a conversation that may lead to them asking for personal information or even for sexual solicitation. These games are often designed for young individuals and allow open chat with complete strangers whose age is never verified.

* Social media/apps – Among young people, the most popular app is Snapchat, a multimedia messaging app. While Powhatan hasn’t had a huge number of sex exploitation and child pornography cases, in the ones it has had, Snapchat has featured prominently, Schwartz said. The world of apps is wide and constantly expanding, including some that may put young people at risk. Omegle is a free online chat website that promotes chatting anonymously with strangers and even states on its website that predators have been known to use it. Whisper is an anonymous app where the creators promote sharing secrets and meeting new people. Kik is a messaging app that has built-in apps and web content that would be filtered on a home computer and has been known to be used by predators.

Calculator% was an app that had a symbol that looked like a calculator application but contained a secret photo and video vault that let young people hide photos from their parents. They could access the content with a secret passcode. It was removed by Apple from its app store amid a police investigation but several similar apps have taken its place.

* Secure your three P’s – Passwords, personal information, and privacy need to be guarded at all times when it comes to online sharing. Be familiar with the privacy policies and settings of any social media application you use.

* Why are children targeted online? – Children are naturally curious, impressionable, feel invincible, easily manipulated, need attention and affection from others, want to defy their parents, and often know more about the internet than their parents. All of these factors put them at risk when engaging in online activity, which makes them vulnerable to predators.

Filtering/blocking software and hardware – In addition to knowing your young people’s passwords and regularly monitoring what content they have on their devices, Schwartz recommended researching software or hardware that can help filter harmful sites, restrict internet access, monitor online activity, and protect personal information.

* Online reputations – Schwartz stressed talking with young people about the effects that putting certain content online can have on their life now and later. Content may show up during job searches and college application screenings that can negatively impact them. Even content a young person believes had been deleted can often still be found.

“You really need a mindset of once it’s up there, it’s up there and it will be out in the world forever,” he said.

Some of the resources he recommended in his presentation included: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (www.missingkids.com); www.fosi.org/good-digital-parenting; https://icac.scag.gov/digital-parenting/; NetSmartz (www.netsmartz.org), and www.commonsensemedia.org.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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