Ex­perts: On­line games hike preda­tor ex­po­sure

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY SHEN WU TAN

Chil­dren face a greater chance of be­ing ex­posed to preda­tors via on­line games, so­cial me­dia and tech de­vices — a risk height­ened by an in­creas­ing re­liance on tech­nol­ogy in schools.

A na­tional cy­ber tip line track­ing on­line ex­ploita­tion of chil­dren re­ceived more than 18 million tips last year, a num­ber ex­pected to dou­ble this year, ac­cord­ing to Cal­la­han Walsh, a child ad­vo­cate for the Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing and Ex­ploited Chil­dren.

Mr. Walsh noted that while re­port­ing has im­proved over the years, many cases still go un­doc­u­mented. And the use of on­line de­vices for teach­ing kids cre­ates more pos­si­ble ex­po­sure and risk to ex­ploita­tion.

“More chil­dren are likely be­ing ex­posed as the in­ter­net be­comes more and more part of our ev­ery­day lives,” he said, not­ing a shift to­ward pop­u­lar on­line games and away from tra­di­tional so­cial me­dia accounts.

And new plat­forms may not have safe­guards, pre­sent­ing an­other chal­lenge to on­line safety, he said.

“It’s tough for par­ents. It’s like whacka-mole,” Mr. Walsh said. “One pops up, and the par­ent tries to un­der­stand that one plat­form and the next thing you know, the child is not on that, but on these other ones.”

“That’s why it’s dif­fi­cult for par­ents to keep up and to try to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing that is hap­pen­ing in the dig­i­tal land­scape,” he said. “That land­scape is con­stantly chang­ing. Those wa­ters are con­stantly shift­ing.”

The FBI con­firmed that the num­ber of chil­dren ex­posed to preda­tors has risen, as the lat­est on­line games, chat apps and so­cial me­dia sites act as a stag­ing ground for pos­si­ble child ex­ploita­tion.

“For kids, they need to be care­ful on­line and aware that there are peo­ple out there look­ing to ex­ploit them. The in­ter­net con­nects kids to the world, but it also con­nects the world to kids,” the FBI told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “You never truly know whom you’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing with, so kids should keep their so­cial me­dia accounts pri­vate and never share any iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion with or send any pictures to any­one they don’t ab­so­lutely know.”

“Chil­dren risk be­ing con­tacted by un­known in­di­vid­u­als seek­ing to sex­u­ally ex­ploit them, or ex­po­sure to in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­tent,” the agency said. Katie Greer, an in­ter­net safety key­note speaker and CEO of KL Greer Con­sult­ing, said par­ents often for­get about the dan­gers of chil­dren chat­ting with gamers on­line and for­get to have “stranger dan­ger” con­ver­sa­tions with their chil­dren when it comes to on­line en­vi­ron­ments.

“We think that we have the whole stranger con­ver­sa­tion taken care of when they are in kinder­garten, but yet we don’t re­al­ize our kids have ac­cess to strangers in games like ‘Fort­nite’ or ‘ Minecraft’ or ‘ Road­blocks’ or TikTok, the so­cial me­dia app,” Ms. Greer said.

With the in­ter­net, she said kids have more ac­cess than ever to strangers in gen­eral, which is some­thing that par­ents know is not safe for chil­dren.

“Know what apps your kids are us­ing and know their ba­sic func­tion­al­ity,” she said, ad­ding that par­ents should know if there is a way to con­nect to strangers through the apps and if there are any con­trol set­tings to limit con­tact.

Ms. Greer, who has pre­sented in­ter­net safety sem­i­nars across North Amer­ica, said many schools also need to but­ton up poli­cies and ex­pec­ta­tions on on­line safety. She said she has come across schools that don’t put fil­ters on de­vices or don’t have great poli­cies around on­line safety.

Many of these learn­ing de­vices are com­ing home, and man­ag­ing on­line se­cu­rity is now one of the great­est chal­lenges for both par­ents and schools, said Linsly Don­nelly, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for con­sumer op­er­a­tions for Se­curly, a chil­dren’s on­line safety com­pany that pro­vides mon­i­tor­ing tools to thou­sands of schools.

“A lot of home­work is only on de­vices,” Ms. Don­nelly said. “There’s no way to just put your head in the sand and say I’m not go­ing to deal with this tech­nol­ogy as a par­ent or a school any longer.”

She stressed schools should au­dit for cy­ber­bul­ly­ing and use fil­ter­ing tools to keep cer­tain web­sites and con­tent off de­vices kids use for learn­ing and home­work.

Mr. Walsh said in­ter­net safety is not just about lock­ing down de­vices but about em­pow­er­ing chil­dren at a young age how to be safe on­line. He said ev­ery school should be re­quired to teach kids about in­ter­net safety.

“A lot of home­work is only on de­vices. There’s no way to just put your head in the sand and say I’m not go­ing to deal with this tech­nol­ogy as a par­ent or a school any longer.” — Linsly Don­nelly, Se­curly

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