Event arms LHISD parents with tools to keep kids safe online

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By Rachel Madison

Parents, police officers and Liberty Hill Independent School District staff attended a Parent Empowerment Event last Thursday evening that gave parents tips and tools on keeping their children safe online, particularly when it comes to social media.

A panel of three experts in the field each spoke during the event, titled “Keeping Your Kids Safe: Social Media’s Impact on Our Youth,” and covered everything from the apps children and teens are currently using to what parents can do to monitor their kids’ internet and social media usage.

The event was hosted by LHISD, the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce, The Independent and the Liberty Hill Police Department.

The presenters included Amy Callaway, outreach coordinator for The Williamson County Children’s Advocacy Center; Steve McIntosh, a retired sergeant from the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office in Centennial, Colo., where he worked with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force among other duties; and Kimberly Bustos, LHPD reserve officer, private investigator and former employee of the Texas Attorney General, where she served as a captain and Internet Crimes Against Children commander.

Callaway spoke first on the topics of sextortion, which is a way predators get teens and children to send them nude photos and then blackmail them into sending even more; and grooming, which is a way predators get children to befriend and trust them.

“They build a relationship,” she said. “It starts off with compliment giving. [Teens] then start sharing all this personal information. What the offenders do is look for vulnerabilities of that kid and become what that kid doesn’t have. Maybe they’re in a single parent household or they are a nerd at school that nobody wants to hang out with. They’ll choose a kid they are attracted to, find those vulnerabilities and then exploit them.”

She also spoke on the different apps children are using most often. These include Kik, Snapchat, WeChat and GroupMe.

“If you don’t actually open these apps up, you won’t see what they are,” she said. “One of the things about Snapchat is that when you send a picture or video, it’s supposed to disappear and go away, but the problem is the person who is receiving the picture or video can actually capture that image on their side. The kid who sent it thinks it’s going away, but meanwhile the other person on the other end has captured it.”

Another popular app is Instagram, which teens are “spending ridiculous amounts of hours editing their photos on,” Callaway said. She added that most high schoolers have two Instagram accounts—one meant for parents and other family members to see, and another that is a “spam” account, which they use to post photos of themselves doing drugs or drinking. Sometimes these spam accounts are also called Finsta (fake Instagram) accounts.

“You may know about one account, but if you don’t know about the other account, you’re not going to see those other pictures,” she said.

Whisper is another app teens use, which allows people to share secrets they don’t want others to know about. Ask.FM is another similar app, which allows users to ask a question and get answers about embarrassing topics, bullying, family problems and more. Sex offenders use these sites to target vulnerable teens, Callaway said.

Backchat and Sarahah are anonymous messaging apps that people can use to ask for and give feedback. Callaway said these apps are often used for bullying because of the anonymity they provide.

Other apps teens are using include WhatsApp and Telegram, which are messaging apps that can be used to make phone calls internationally, as well as send pictures and videos; Tumblr, which is a blogging platform teens use; and Chat Roulette and Omegle, which are online chat sites that pair people together randomly to chat. A few dating apps, such as Tinder, Yellow and Grindr are also being used by teens, and offenders are even targeting children and teens through gaming apps such as Second Life and Animal Jam.

Another way teens keep texts and photos private is through apps like Secret Calculator Pro or Secret Piano, which look like a calculator app or a piano app on the outside, but are really a vault for storing inappropriate content. Callaway said teens can use these apps to hide anything they don’t want others to see.

McIntosh spoke about how things have changed since parents were young, the dangers of the Internet and what parents can do to keep their children safe.

He spoke about how boys and girls are looking more like men and women when they’re teenagers, but that their brains aren’t fully developing until they’re in their late 20s due to technology. He added that in American culture, peers matter more than parents, which has created a culture of disrespect.

“Children are losing their emotional intelligence due to device usage,” he said. “According to the Department of Homeland Security, 74 percent of parents admit to not knowing about their children’s online behavior and 65 percent of youth say they’d change their online behavior if their parents were paying more attention.”

McIntosh said that’s why it’s important that when a child is online, parents need to know who they are speaking with, how they are conducting themselves and when they are on their devices.

“When kids don’t want you to know they’re on their device, they’ll find a way to get on, [even if] it’s in the middle of the night,” he said. “That’s the one I’ve seen the most. If you limit their time and know when they’re on it, it’s a lot easier to monitor what they’re doing.

McIntosh added that children are stumbling onto pornography as early as age 5. He also spoke on sexting, identity theft and human trafficking, which can all be results of social media usage.

“Offenders use social media to learn their victims’ likes and dislikes,” he said.

McIntosh added that it’s important to check a child’s credit score occasionally, because once they are issued a social security number, they can have their identity stolen and their credit ruined.

“It’s easy [for it to be stolen] because kids don’t check their credit scores and they have no idea what a credit check is,” he said.

McIntosh said parents should encourage their children to read and spend less time online, particularly because of all of the fake information they can find online. He also suggested being a “helicopter parent.”

“In my life it’s always been a derogatory term, something people call you when you overdo it, but there are times when it’s necessary to do this,” he said. “You also need to find out the communication style that works for [your kid]. If you don’t know your kids’ communication style, you won’t find a way to change their behavior. It’s important to have an open dialogue with your child.”

Ultimately, McIntosh said children are very innovative as far as technology goes, and they will always be ahead of the curve. That’s why it’s important as parents to keep up as well, he added.

“Trying to figure out what they’re doing is akin to trying to jump onto a moving train,” he said. “If you’re not looking at it constantly, you’re going to find that it’s hard to catch up.”

Bustos gave several tips on the warning signs to look for when children and teens could be victims of bullying or harassment. She said warning signs include headaches, not wanting to go to school, changes in eating habits, and withdrawing from friends, family and activities.

“If you don’t look for signs, you’ll miss them,” she said. “Teenagers are moody, but this is different than moody.”

Bustos also gave tips on how parents can keep better tabs on what their kids are doing with their phones. She suggested keeping cell phones out of kids’ rooms at night and knowing who they are hanging out with by attending school functions and sporting events. She also suggested parents should create fake social media accounts.

“[Your kids] are going to create accounts you don’t know about, but guess what?” Bustos said. “You can create an account they don’t know about, too. Guess what you can do with that account? Friend them. See how far you can get. They’ll tell you that you invaded their privacy. But you can invade it or a predator can invade it.”

Bustos added that oftentimes sex offenders who are preying on children include people in the community like police officers, teachers, doctors and dentists.

“Those are the ones you have to look for,” she said. “Most sexual assault occurs by someone the child knows.”

Other tips include making children share their phone and social media account passwords and surprising them by taking their phone out of their hand while they’re using it.

“If they have that phone in their face, pick it up and take it,” she said. “If you tell them, ‘Let me look at your phone,’ they’ll shut it off. So just grab it and watch their face turn white.”

Bustos also said spending 15 minutes of quality time with children each day just to ask if there’s anything they need to talk about is vital.

“Eventually, you will form a bond,” she said. “They will start to tell you things. At first it’s awkward … but don’t give up. If they do confide in you, and they will, validate their feelings and don’t minimize what they tell you. It might be the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard, but to them it’s not. That’s their world. It’s their reputation.”

She added that some kids do better communicating via texting or emailing, and if that’s what they are comfortable with, then let them do it.

“It’s more important to get the information,” she said.

Bustos also overviewed anti-bullying law — David’s Law — as well as state laws regarding harassment, child pornography and online impersonation.

Mario Bye, principal at Liberty Hill High School, said the district plans on holding more parent empowerment events next school year, and asked parents to provide input on what topics they’d like to learn more about.

“We’ve done substance abuse and cyber safety,” he said. “We could repeat those and do more with them or we could go to another topic. We want to know what you as parents need and provide that to you. We want you to be learners just like your kids are learners.”

About 30 people attended last week’s event.

Rachel@LHIndependent.com

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