Back-to-school in the US brings potential for dangerous online interactions

Bishop said parents need to take a hands-on approach with supervising their kids' use of social media and the Internet. — School photo created by freepik -

Online abuse is becoming more common, and as kids go back to school and social media interactions with new "friends" ramp up, there are steps families should take to protect their students.

Popular apps including Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook are places where kids have the potential to be exploited. Lonnie Bishop, an investigator for the Buchanan County Sheriff's Office, said one of the reasons for that is these apps are trying to be more alike.

"The big push for all these apps are to be like each other," Bishop said. "What you have on Facebook you're going to have on Instagram. So if you have disappearing messages on Facebook, you're going to have it on Instagram. And same thing with Snapchat. They want to be like Facebook. So all of them are trying to engineer themselves to be alike."

Bishop said the grooming process online begins with the criminal creating an online profile. The person bases the profile on someone "childlike" to appeal to kids trying to find online friends with similar interests.

"The groomer will actually try and target the kids sometimes and say, 'Well, I'm interested in volleyball, I'm interested in basketball' or something like that," Bishop said. "They'll friend each other or they'll meet through another friend or another person. A lot of times I've seen ones where they'll use two different profiles and say, 'Hey, this is my friend, that's a female, hey, this is what I look like.'... It looks like they're a 12-year-old kid on their profile when they're actually a 36-year-old male or something to that effect."

Bishop said every criminal is different when it comes to their motives in these cases. If parents become aware that their child has become involved in a dangerous online interaction, the recommendation is to call on law enforcement instead of engaging with the suspect first.

"When they do that, that kind of makes our job a little bit difficult," Bishop said. "If you find out this has happened on your phone, leave it alone. Call law enforcement and we'll start taking it over from there and then we can deal with that with each aspect of it. It's going to take a little bit of time. We'll help you. It's going to take both of us working together. We may we may choose to take over the kid's account. We'll get a lot of information off that that we can continue to investigate that person."

There are many avenues to counteract online abuse and harassment. One is through the use of a Gabb phone, which allows use only to call or text. Another avenue is restricting an Android or iPhone to the oversight of the parent. Bishop said choices are going to be different in every family situation.

"There's no one solution that's going to work best, so look around and shop around," Bishop said. "There are apps out there too and every family's going to have a different situation... so your do your research and look into those avenues."

There are warning signs parents can look for if they suspect a child is suffering from online harassment.

"All of a sudden you have this outspoken kid or this bubbly kid, and all of a sudden they're withdrawn," Bishop said. "They don't want to be at school. They're not getting along with their friends. There's only so much that we can do and there's only so much the technology can do. If something's not right here, you trust your gut instinct and bring it up."

Bishop said parents need to take a hands-on approach with supervising their kids' use of social media and the Internet.

"I understand you got kids out there and you want to trust them... it's a hard thing to do," Bishop said. "With the way the world is now, social media, the Internet is just as dangerous as diving. You can get in that much trouble. There are bad things that can happen to you. So trust but verify. You can trust your kid, but don't be afraid to be that mean parent. Say we're going to stop this until we figure something out." – St. Joseph News-Press, Mo./Tribune News Service

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