Protecting children: Internet safety focus of seminar

It’s not news that the internet is not a safe place for children.

And yet, most children spend much more time on technology than pediatricians recommend. It’s not that big a deal, right?

Very wrong.

In a seminar that would make the most lax parent think twice before handing their child a phone or tablet, Street Hope TN’s Samantha Hicks spoke to parents, grandparents and teachers gathered at Norris Middle School on Thursday night about how to keep kids safe in the internet age.

“It’s not this stranger danger, don’t go to the white van,” said NMS teacher and seminar organizer Rachel Pemberton. “These people are pursuing children through online chat rooms and social media. And they’re using a lot of apps that adults don’t know about.”

In many of the apps, users chat with each other, thinking that they’re talking to other children.

But they’re not.

Street Hope TN is a faith-based nonprofit that works to combat human trafficking through awareness, restoration and prevention, according to Pemberton. Pemberton has worked with them for the past year or so and felt it was an important message for the community to hear.

“Even though I’ve been in the trainings before,” said Pemberton, who is also training to be an advocate, “it was still very hard to hear the specific stories of kids who were targeted online.”

Predators don’t just target children through social media; they also use chat rooms in games like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft, games that many parents don’t even realize have text chat. Text chat in Fortnite can’t be turned off and there are no filters. There are benefits to the games — teaching teamwork, reflexes, and cooperation — but the dangers are also there.

“Kids are digital natives but not digitally literate,” said Pemberton. “The internet is their normal, but that doesn’t mean they know how to use it wisely.”

Kids have decreased critical thinking skills and make poor choices when it comes to sharing personal information. They don’t realize that sexual content they may post is online forever — even if they’ve deleted it.

“Eighty-nine percent of sexual content gets reposted,” Pemberton said.

“Kids think that if it’s gone, it’s deleted, but the content is being reposted.”

And predators are getting to it. If a child posts that they’re lonely or don’t feel beautiful or loved, predators and traffickers are swooping right in. Tennessee’s laws define human trafficking as the sale of an adult for the purposes of commercial sex by means of force, fraud, or coercion, according to the TBI. Online forums, group chats and messaging are just the beginning.

The solicitors ask the juveniles to meet them in person.

According to Hicks, 76-percent of first encounters of a predator took place in an online chat room and 27-percent of them asked youths for sexual photographs of themselves. A survey of juvenile victims of internet-initiated sex crimes found that the majority met the predator willingly face-to-face.

There are some things that children do that put them in danger that adults do as well.

Those actions put their own children in danger. They include accepting friend requests from strangers, sharing your location online, tagging your children or other people’s children, using hashtags, and unknowingly giving apps access to your microphone, photos and location.

Seemingly innocuous hashtags like #blessed, #firstdayofkindergarten, #bathtime and other children-related tags are used by traffickers and predators.

As more research is coming out about not just online safety, but mental well-being and its connection to social media use among teens and kids, Pemberton said that they have “backed up” on letting students use their phones at school.

“We were allowing them to use them at lunch, and we’ve changed that,” she said.

The sixth-graders weren’t even eating as they focused their energy on their phones. Banning phone use in the cafeteria has allowed the children to return their focus on being social and just talking with their friends.

“We want our children to be safe and happy,” she said. “To live a content life. We try to educate them on how to use it responsibly and have a good perspective. That online account is not you. It has your name, but it’s not really who you are.”

Hicks recommends syncing your device as a parent with one iCloud account that is shared with your children. Check all downloaded apps, and look for hidden apps and folders.

The Courier News will post these and many other tips online. There are many precautions that can be taken to protect your children from predators and human trafficking. Apps to watch for include (more info on these online as well):

• Houseparty

• Tinder

• Sarahah

• Kik

• Whisper

• Groupme

From the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation:

● In the United States, on average, every two minutes, a child is bought or sold for sex.

● The average age of a child sold for sex is 13 years old.

● Human Trafficking is the second-fastest growing criminal industry, just behind Drug Trafficking.

● 85% of Tennessee counties reported at least one case of sex trafficking in the previous 24 months.

● 72% of counties reported at least one case of minor sex trafficking in the same time frame.

● Four counties (Davidson, Knox, Coffee, and Shelby), reported at least 100 instances of minor sex trafficking in the previous two years.