By Jill Goetz

Preschool and Early Educator Child Safety Specialist

The story has played out in the nightly news, in Glamour magazine and through online articles; Lucas Michael Chansler was sentenced to 105 years in prison after pleading guilty to nine counts of producing child pornography.  The FBI is currently searching for HUNDREDS of victims based on files and information found on his personal computer.  Two confirmed victims were located in the greater Seattle area, prompting local lifestyle show New Day Northwest to invite an FBI representative and yours truly, from Savvy Parents Safe Kids to discuss the impact social media is having on our children.  We were able to share an incredible amount of information regarding this case and why it is so newsworthy for all families, not just those in our neighborhoods.

The FBI released a long list of online names and email addresses Chansler used when posing as a 15 year old boy to befriend girls. Parents can’t help but wonder, “Why do so many teens fall for this ploy?”  The answer is remarkably simple:  teens and tweens today are digital natives.  They’ve grown up surrounded by laptops and smartphones, both at home and at school.  Where previous generations utilized written correspondence and talked on the telephone, teens today text and use online apps as their primary form of communication with each other.  Skye, FaceTime and webcams are normalized for them.  Chansler was a master manipulator who recognized the trend, and the vulnerability of teens, and used it to his advantage.

Please remember that the developing brain in adolescents doesn’t always sense or identify threats.  These victims did not see the danger in doing something as commonplace as chatting online with another teenager.  But they weren’t spending time with another teenager – they were being engaged by a cunning, predatory adult.  That’s why Chansler and other perpetrators are able to use ploys like this so successfully.

The victim who finally contacted the FBI and brought Chansler to justice repeatedly gave him compromising photos of herself.  Why?  Because he threatened to ruin her reputation and embarrass and shame her. She complied because she was afraid of her parents’ reaction and didn’t want to face their disappointment.

PARENTS – approach your kids and start talking about this now, before online relationships go beyond appropriate.  Everyone likes to think “not my kid.”  But the teens identified already in this case were good kids, average teens.  They were just like your kid.  Really.  Just like your kid.

Do you know how to talk to your child in a way that will make them feel safe sharing their experience?

Do not be surprised to find out your teen already knows all about the topic or has already experienced something similar online.  Kids don’t see these relationships as dangerous and will go to great lengths to hide them from you, along with being coerced by the perpetrator to maintain secrecy.  So you can’t wait for your teen to come to you.  They won’t.  Period.  They don’t want you to know that they messed up and they don’t want you to know how bad it is.  You have to be vigilant and earnestly monitor their online actions.  Sleuth around like it is your job.  Because it is!  Ultimately you want to find the way that your teen was talk openly with you.  It’s probably going to be something that does not involve making eye contact with you, because that can be intimidating.  So something like taking a walk – side by side, or talking across the table at game night, or even riding in the car where mom is in the front seat and they feel “safe” in the back seat.  These are all great times to start having short, daily, non-judgmental conversations about safety before there ever is a problem to begin with.  You don’t have a teenager at your house?  You’re kids aren’t even potty trained?  You’re still in luck!  Start having these conversations with your preschooler because it is so much easier to have difficult conversations later on, if this type of open communication is perceived as the norm in your family-culture.

My three year old uses my iPhone like a BOSS …

That’s because kids are accessing social media at increasingly younger ages. They handle smartphones, tablets, laptops and PC’s like itty-bitty professionals.  It’s like the Geek Squad lives at your house.  So, here are the tips you need to help children stay safe, and better monitor their online usage.

  1. COPPA is the Child Online Privacy Protection Act.  It has guidelines for social media websites and following the mandatory age for use.  Families need to adhere to those guidelines, no matter the argument given by your child.  And there will be many.
  2. We already know that home computers need to be in a public location, with parental controls, online monitoring software and that you need to know all of your teen’s passcodes for everything from You Tube, to online games and instant messaging.
  3. We want parents to understand that the internet is not a thing.  The internet is a place.  LET THAT SINK IN.  If you wouldn’t send your child to a mall full of pornographic stores, then they shouldn’t be unsupervised on the internet.
  4. When it comes to smartphones for tweens or teens our answer is simple … not before 8th grade.  Just don’t do it people!  A basic cell phone can provide the connectivity guardians are looking for.
  5. Parents should always have access to their teen’s phone and passcodes.  That’s easily done by designating that their phone charges in mom and dad’s room each night.
  6. If your teen already has a smartphone be sure to disable location services and enable privacy settings in each app.
  7. From our website, Savvy Parents Safe Kids, get the free download of Qustudio.  It will monitor everything on your teen’s Android phone or computer and let you know whether those apps and sites are appropriate or not.

No family is crime proof. We can however reduce risk. Talk to your kids, watch videos with them that show how easy it is for them to be tricked. Never give up, keep talking, keep snooping, use all the safety tools that are available to you.

www.SavvyParentsSafeKids.com