Danger in Their Pockets

Screenshot of the Snapchat and Instagram apps

When Wren Mason* woke to headlights flashing on and off through her bedroom window in the middle of the night, she knew something was wrong. A car thief, perhaps? Vandals? She nudged her husband Pete* to go check it out, and he headed outside with a gun in hand.

A newer truck sat in their driveway, with an older man at the wheel. Once he saw Pete—and Pete's pistol—the stranger gunned it in reverse and was gone.

Strange, the Masons thought. Their small town of 5,000 in rural western Oregon is pretty quiet, and major crimes are rare. What was going on?

Their 16-year-old daughter Sharla* knew—and she told her parents everything.

"She had been sneaking onto [her brother's] school computer and downloaded an app called MeetMe," Wren tells Citizen.

Like many other apps, games and social media platforms, this one had a chat feature in which any user could directly contact another. "She met a guy whom she thought was a teen and was all in love," the 41-year-old mother of five says. Sharla gave the man her address but never expected her online flame to show up in the family driveway.

Alarmed, Pete and Wren logged into Sharla's MeetMe account and read the messages between the two.

"It was very pornographic," Wren says. So pornographic, in fact that, that the Masons gave the computer, with passwords to all accounts, to the local sheriff's department.

For the next month, Pete and Wren made Sharla sleep in their room to more closely monitor her nighttime activities. After that, they unhooked the family's modem and took it to bed with them each night.

With 24/7 internet access becoming standard fare for America's tech-savvy kids, the Masons' story is becoming more and more commonplace, holding a lesson that online child safety advocates say parents can ill afford to ignore:

Apps and games that allow strangers to contact children directly and discreetly exist—and there's a good chance a child you care about is already using at least one of them.

The Explosion

Since Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, smartphone usage around the globe has skyrocketed for both adults and children. A May 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, for example, found that around 95 percent of American teenagers either own their own smartphones or use their parents'. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as of February 2017, more than 60 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds had at least one social media account—almost all of which offer ways for users to contact each other directly.

Direct-messaging capabilities can be found on platforms as familiar as Facebook's and Instagram's Messenger features to newer apps like MeetMe, Roblox, Musical.ly, Live.ly, Amino, Snapchat, Vine, Omegle and Yubo—and that's not counting the new apps, games and social media sites that debut each month.

"The internet is so ubiquitous," National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) Child Advocate Callahan Walsh tells Citizen. "Most of us didn't grow up with it, but our kids have, and they have often much more knowledge than we do."

And in this case, Walsh says, what we don't know definitely can hurt us—and our kids.

"Sextortion is the new trend," he says: Online predators establish a friendship with minors through direct messaging, then coerce the children into taking and sharing sexually explicit images and videos. From there, criminals then extort the child for more material by threatening to reveal the relationship to friends, family, community members or internet groups.

"[NCMEC has] helped victims who were sending 60 images a night [to predators] in fear they would be exposed to families and friends," says Walsh. "These kids are living a double life and have this big secret. It's really devastating."

Walsh's parents, John and Reve, who started NCMEC in 1984, intimately know the pain and havoc predators can wreak on families. In 1981, their six-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped from a Sears department store in Florida and murdered. That event changed the national conversation on topics like stranger danger, abductions and typical childhood freedoms like playing outside, walking to school and feeling safe in community. Callahan, now 31, was born six years later.

The "community" we all live in today is not only physical, but virtual. Walsh's job is to help parents nationwide navigate the often-confusing waters of their children's online interactions. Though most content for kids is "created with great intentions," Walsh encourages adults not to turn a blind eye as they grant their children sometimes unlimited internet access.

"Adults face similar issues, right? Catfishing, online scams, things like that," he points out. "So if adults can be scammed online, of course it can happen to children! Their brains are still developing, and they will seek attention elsewhere if they're not getting it at home."

To that end, NCMEC has seen an uptick in self-produced child pornography. That's when predators ask children to share videos of themselves performing sex acts, either alone or on friends or family members.

Parental Decisions

Dina Alexander first became concerned about what she calls "the drug of our kids' generation" after reading an article about children and online porn use in 2013. Given that 45 percent of 10- to 12-year-olds nationwide own a smartphone with a service plan, according to a 2017 Nielsen report, Alexander could no longer ignore the fact that even if strangers weren't asking her three children for pornified personal images, their friends were.

"My daughter has had a few boyfriends," Alexander tells Citizen. "All of them have had porn issues, and she's not even out of high school."

As a devout Christian, the Bourne, Texas, mother didn't want to make the mistake of "thinking I'm doing everything right: going to church, family prayer, reading the Bible and talking about Jesus" but not talking about online choices and behaviors with her kids.

So five years ago, she created Educate and Empower Kids (EEK), a secular nonprofit organization that "provides resources to parents and educators to encourage deep connection with their kids through media education, meaningful family communication and intentional parenting."

To that end, EEK offers books and programs with titles like 30 Days of Sex Talks and 30 Days to a Stronger Child, as well as How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography and its latest, a middle-grade children's book called Noah's New Phone.

Parents may lean toward having a one-time conversation about internet safety, "but this is about maintaining an ongoing dialogue, about being intentional with our children and their tech behavior," says Alexander. "I firmly believe that God put us on the earth for this reason—that He designed our family and made us the right parents of the right children, at this specific time."

Part of that includes realizing it is indeed parents' job to understand the power our kids are literally holding in their hands.

"Kids are digital natives; parents are digital immigrants," Alexander explains. "But we have to keep having those conversations, because nobody can stay on top of the latest apps, games and devices [without effort]. This is where conversation, relationships and having deep connection with our kids comes in."

As tempting as the idea of completely cutting off all devices may be, EEK advocates a more moderate approach filled with firm screen limits, regular "screen fasts," parental filters installed on devices, and spending time as a family playing games or surfing the internet together.

In that vein, Pete and Wren Mason gradually re-introduced Sharla to the internet after the MeetMe fiasco, first by allowing family texts only, then to friends she knew in real life, then social media accounts where all messages went not only to Sharla's phone, but also Pete's.

"Now that she is 18, we are having to release control," Wren says—which is exactly what Alexander and her organization want parents to think about before something questionable happens.

"Your kids need to have social media before they leave your home so they can screw up while they are still under your roof," Alexander says. "You need to get them ready" for unfettered technology use, though she recommends waiting until at least high school to give them a smartphone.

Smart Empowerment

NCMEC recommends several ground rules for parents to use concerning their children's online activity:

  • Tell a parent when anything makes you feel sad, scared or confused;
  • Ask for permission before you share your name, address or phone number;
  • Refrain from meeting face-to-face with any internet friends; and
  • Use proper "netiquette" with polite words and behaviors.

"It's about being a good digital citizen, and learning that with great power comes great responsibility," Walsh says. "Not everything is horrible online, and it's important that we don't scare or overwhelm our children. So we encourage parents to look for teachable moments, to engage in the services their child wants to use with them."

The ultimate goal: Empowering children to identify risky situations online and make the right decision themselves. Because at the end of the day, parents will never be able to monitor all their children's online interactions from toddlerhood to adulthood.

Alexander agrees, and suggests taking it one step further: Model what it's like to intentionally live life away from the constant chatter of direct-messaging communication, whether with strangers or best friends.

"Satan has done a brilliant job of bombarding us with distractions," she says. "Our spirits cannot be fed by scrolling through social media and being distracted all day long. We need real connection, real interaction."

Because in the end, isn't that what both adults and children are searching for?

Thankfully, Alexander says, though families that trust in Jesus are certainly not immune to the dangers of strangers directly contacting their youngest members online, they do have guidance from the ultimate, all-seeing Parent.

"Christian parents have the grace of Jesus Christ that can make all the difference to do what we can't, because we can't be prepared for every single tiny situation," she says. "Our kids still have agency, and they will still make choices. But as Christians, we have that other perspective that we're not alone in this situation. We have our Savior looking out for us and our kids."

For More Information:

Explore comprehensive data and parental tips  from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at missingkids.org. Check out Educate and Empower Kids' parent resources and products at educateempowerkids.org. For a free parents' guide to today's technology, visit FocusOnTheFamily.com/techguide.

Takeaways:

  • Strangers across the globe have access to your children through direct-contact messaging featured in apps, games and social media.
  • Parents, educators and caregivers can limit or eliminate that contact through a variety of methods, including filters, screen limits, house rules and intentional, interactive supervision.
  • Children's developing brains and long-term outlooks depend on caring adults deliberately teaching them how to navigate online waters.

Bad Actors

Each year, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) releases a "Dirty Dozen" list exposing American corporations that exploit people for profit. Apps and online games that are popular with minors often make the list due to their lax parental controls and easy access to pornography, graphic violence and other objectionable content.

The 2018 list features several supposedly kid-friendly apps and games in which strangers can contact kids, including:

Snapchat: Users send texts and photos to other users that disappear within seconds (unless someone takes a screenshot). Such "no consequences" communication has proven popular with sexters and child pornographers of all ages, as well as the opportunity to monetize inappropriate images through the app's Snapcash feature.

Steam: A gaming platform with more than 35 million child users, Steam features thousands of games—many of them glorifying rape and other sexually explicit acts. Steam's paltry filters provide nearly no substantial barrier to children trying to access its most hardcore material.

YouTube: The perennially popular video-sharing platform got dinged by NCOSE for its lax monitoring of uploaded videos, including sexually explicit and violent content easily accessed by youngsters.

Amazon: The world's largest online retailer sells photography books featuring child nudity, sex trafficking manuals and softcore porn from its Prime label.

Comcast: Its Xfinity television packages offer hardcore pornography, including teen, incest and racist-themed porn.

EBSCO: This online library for schools features easy access to pornography and graphic sexual content.

HBO: Its original programming often focuses on graphic sex scenes, including rape and other sexual violence.

iBooks: This app for e-books is replete with erotic literature normalizing adult/teen sex, incest, racially charged sexual stereotypes, student-teacher and babysitter sex scenes, and rape.

The Poster Boys of #MeToo: For the first time, the Dirty Dozen list included individuals instead of only corporations: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen and James Franco. This quartet allegedly has used their influence to intimidate and harass others sexually, as well as normalize their behavior through their media channels.

Roku: A media-streaming company that offers users access to hardcore pornography through private and hidden channels.

Twitter: Hosts pornographic accounts that advertise for porn websites and online prostitution.

For more information about NCOSE, visit endsexualexploitation.org.

Originally published in the October 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.

© 2018 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.