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Keeping children safe online could be a matter of life or death

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hooded-internet-guyBy Bevin Theodore 


There is no doubt social media has its advantages. Businesses use it to promote their goods and services, share industry updates and showcase special events. Individuals rely on it to network and keep in touch with friends and relatives who live far away.


Yet while social media can be helpful in both professional and personal circles, Janene Holter, a special agent with the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, also warns it can be detrimental. During a recent workshop at KidsPeace, Holter challenged attendees to take a closer look at their social media strategies, asking questions like “What are your priorities and values?” “Who are your friends?” “Who are their friends?” For people working in the behavioral or mental health field, online “friends” should never be former clients.


By now, most social media users are savvy enough to realize that information posted online remains there forever. But did you know that once content is on social media, you no longer own it? Holter shared the story of a third-grade teacher who took a vacation to the Dominican Republic and posted some photos of herself on the beach to Facebook. The owner of a gentlemen’s club saw one of the pictures and used it for the company’s billboard, which happened to be a few blocks away from where the teacher worked. When she requested they take it down, the owner refused because once content is online the original poster no longer owns it. The teacher lost the fight and her job.


It’s even more confusing for children and teenagers, who view burgeoning friend lists as a mark of their popularity. They are also more inclined to share personal information online or trust strangers who reach out to them.

“Social media is changing the dynamics of the definition of a friend,” Holter said. “Unfortunately we are seeing that students feel invincible.” 

And it is that false sense of security online that leads many young people into trouble. A teenager who would never get in a car with a stranger who pulled up outside her school connects with someone much older online and eventually agrees to meet in person. That was the case in “Alicia’s story,” one of many educational videos produced by the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General that share true stories. Alicia was a 13-year-old girl who lived near Pittsburgh. She befriended “Christine,” 14, online, and the two began sharing intimate details of their lives. After a 13-month online friendship, “Christine” revealed herself to actually be a 38-year-old man. Alicia says she was angry and stopped talking to her for an hour or so, but she resumed the relationship because she still felt close to this person.

“He always made me feel pretty and special,” Alicia recalls. “That’s what every teenager wants.” 

To make it up to her for lying, the man told Alicia he would pick her up and take her out in her neighborhood. At 6 p.m. on New Year’s Day, Alicia walked out of her parents’ home – without a coat, or money or a cell phone – to meet a total stranger. From the moment she got into his car, her life was forever changed. He took her to West Virginia, where for four days he and his friends kept her in a dog cage, chained to the floor, wearing a shock collar, as they raped, beat and tortured her. It was only after the ringleader videotaped the assaults, live streamed them online and someone saw the footage and called the authorities, that she was saved.

After she was rescued, her mom recalls that she was afraid of everything. She had flashbacks, she couldn’t sleep alone and she had to be homeschooled.

“You do whatever you have to do to survive, no matter how painful or disgusting or humiliating that might be,” Alicia said. “These people want a piece of you … and those pieces are really hard to get back. I’m still trying to find all of mine and glue them back together … My life will never be normal. There will always be something missing.” 

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of Alicias out there,” Holter said.


And even though Alicia’s case is horrific, some are even worse. “Christina’s story” tells the tale of a 13-year-old girl from Connecticut who moved in with her aunt in Pennsylvania when her parents got a divorce. Her aunt, in an effort to make her feel at home, got her a computer for her room – something Holter suggests never doing. Christina made many online friends, one of whom was a 24-year-old man whose wife was pregnant with their first child. They started meeting at the mall every Friday night, though Christina told her aunt she was meeting friends. One week, her aunt went to pick her up, and she wasn’t there. Hours later, police found her body in a nearby stream. She had been strangled.


After looking at her Internet history, authorities were led to her attacker. Holter pointed out that their relationship started innocently, with the two talking and sharing information. Then, the man started promising Christina gifts or calling her “sexy.” He asked her to send him suggestive pictures of herself. They met nine times before he killed her, and authorities were never certain what went precipitated her death. Even after Christina’s killer was incarcerated, he continued to set up social profiles online in an attempt to get young girls to write to him.


Predators are willing to take as much time as they need to build a rapport with these children, and they are experts at mirroring the lives of their victims to create a sense of connection. Holter said a red flag for adults is if a child is closer to online friends than those in real life. She tells parents to ask their children often what they are doing online, what information they are sharing and who their friends are. Holter encourages parents to take away all electronic devices – laptops, tablets, phones – before children and teenagers go to bed at night since most online contact that could be dangerous occurs between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. She advocates that parents not only have all electronic passwords, but that they check them often to ensure their children haven’t changed them. Aside from keeping parents in the loop, these passwords could be critical if a child does get into a dangerous situation because it can take days for authorities to be granted a search warrant to retrieve electronic information. Holter reminds parents it’s not about invading children’s privacy, but about offering protection.


“I don’t care if they think you’re violating their rights,” she said.


Photo credit: EmiliaU/iStock


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