Police officers can’t be everywhere at once, and online dangers are even more complicated, but the DeForest Police Department is helping parents to better understand digital risks and how to protect their children.
On May 20, School Resource Officer Andrew Freeman hosted an online seminar to highlight risks in social media in applications that parents probably have installed on their own phones, and some they may have never heard of before.
Freeman has hosted the program in the past months, with responses roughly doubling each time, from about six, to around a dozen, to 30 registered participants this time, plus however many would be watching via video streaming.
Before going into his first slide, Freeman first took an informal survey, asking what age kids viewers had, with answers of high schoolers, and some elementary-age.
Over the past year, with so many of us--adults and children--moving to life almost entirely online, law enforcement have also seen a huge uptick in cyber crimes involving and targeting youth.
Over the past year, federal authorities have reported over 3,000 arrests for child exploitation, and over 1,400 reports of “sextortion.”
In April a DeForest man, Cash Otradovec, was indicted for federal charges in Wisconsin and Florida for charges of extortion and attempting to produce child pornography.
According to court documents in the Florida case, Otradovec admitted to asking for explicit pictures and videos from 65 Instagram and Kik users, getting them from about half.
Freeman started the presentation with Snapchat, saying that just about every kid he knew with social media access had a Snapchat account.
In what would be a somewhat recurring theme, Freeman mentioned that if a child happens to lie about their age on their profile, they will be exposed to age-inappropriate material.
The app includes a location finder and display, which can alert others online where the user is at a given time.
When he has asked some about that risk, a common response has been a confident, “Only my friends can see my location,” to which a key follow-up question is, “Do you know all your friends?”
Although sharing information with “friends” in the common sense may seem safe, online “friends” includes friends of friends, acquaintances, and in some cases, virtual strangers.
TikTok has exploded in popularity as a video sharing application, and has all but replaced YouTube for some. It also serves to verify a concern, as Freeman explained that TikTok has an “minimum age” of 13. At the same time he has known kids who are certainly not 13 who are active on the platform.
The app Yolo is designed to allow anonymous asking and answering of questions, which has made it a dangerous platform for cyberbullying.
From there the presentation got darker, with Omegle, which has the slogan, “Talk to strangers!” connecting users at random.
Although an app offering endless surprise of meeting new people could be attractive for harmless reasons, as shown in a BBC investigation, the app was, in other corners, apparently a swamp of adult sex acts directed toward children, as well as direct child exploitation.
Although the shared news clip was from a British broadcaster, Freeman confirmed Omegle use in DeForest.
The most unsettling warnings of the presentation involved applications designed for anonymous contact, which opens doors for inappropriate connections, repeated connections through other, seedier applications, and in the worst case scenarios leading to grooming for exploitation.
As with many other youth safety presentations, it also included an element of reminding parents that kids frequently excel at hiding things from their parents, and today, instead of contraband under a loose floor board or an opening in a wall, worries involve what is hiding in a phone.
“Kids are smart enough not to hide things in their camera roll,” said Freeman, as he explained hidden vaults, programs that will give kids a secret password-protected storage area that will look like a standard application, such as a calculator.
When one parent asked why Facebook was not mentioned, Freeman explained that part of the reason was that it has dipped in popularity, but also that in general the same risks apply: it allows strangers to message kids privately, often initially offering them validation--something many kids feel desperate to have.
Even if a child manages to steer clear of the more clearly sinister elements of social media, the environment of quick delivery of recognition and validation can be dangerous in and of itself.
“Overusing can also be a problem,” said Freeman. “Getting that dopamine from likes and shares.”
Although kids are approaching the end of the school year, Freeman explained that he has delivered variations on his digital awareness seminar, and he would be looking at options for presenting to different classes in elementary through high school.
As well, he told viewers that he expected to have another updated parent presentation soon enough.
“I’m sure in the next three or four months there will be something new,” said Freeman, “and we’ll need to keep up.”