CLAY COUNTY – Last Tuesday was Safer Internet Day in the United States and another 140 countries around the world. It also was National Cut the Cord Day, National Bagel and Lox Day, National Pizza Day and National Toothache Day.
While other national days are set aside to celebrate things like umbrellas, chopsticks, bubble gum, Ferris wheels, cabbage, vacuums, showering with a friend and crab-stuffed flounder, there is nothing whimsical or amusing about having to place attention on the very real problem of keeping our children safe from the dark dangers of the world wide web.
Too many of our children are being exploited online by predators. What’s even more alarming is, parents often are clueless about the abuse.
For the Internet Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking department at the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, it’s a very real issue that demands their attention every day of the year, not just Feb. 9.
“It is a challenge,” said Det. Ryan Ellis. “It’s one of those things, even though technology is not new, if you think about other illicit about things or things that have been made illegal, such as drugs or at one point, even alcohol, those things have been around for thousands of years. We have technology that in the big picture of mankind, it’s fairly new.
“Even though people know that it’s dangerous, it hasn’t quick had the time and the attention that’s needed like other things have, like firearms and safety and drugs and why certain things are harmful. Drinking and driving has around way longer than a Smartphone. It is a constant battle. I have a couple sayings that unfortunately end up telling parents where their children are victims or have been involved in something like this, is: ‘Smartphones are too smart for kids, sometimes; and kids aren’t smart enough for a Smartphone.’ The internet is such a mature place.”
Ellis’ job is daunting. He pours through disgusting and disturbing evidence every day to lock up people who take advantage of our children. Just in the past two weeks, his department arrested two local men who’ve been charged with multiple counts of possessing illicit photos and videos of children having sex.
And during the pandemic there’s been an increase in activity, Ellis said.
“We’ve seen an uptick and we’ve been extremely busy, unfortunately,” he said. “I joke with people sometimes I could find something else to do or we could go get cats out of trees or help people cross the road, it’s shame there’s such a need for it.”
His office tells parents there are several ways to identify and prevent posting sexual content. As impossible as it seems, parents need to tell their children it’s never all right to be asked or to share nude photos. Once they’re sent, the child can never get them back.
According to JAMA Pediatrics, 14.8% of teenagers have sent and 27.4% have received a “sext” – and 12% of them forwarded it without consent.
Such behavior is an abuse of power and a cybercrime that can follow a child well into adulthood.
Much like teaching children against the dangers of firearms and alcohol and drug abuse, parents need to be involved with their children’s online safety.
“I tell parents don’t ever take the approach of ‘not my kid or my kid would never do that.’ That’s not to say every child that gets on a Smartphone is going to get involved in things they shouldn’t or make mistakes,” Ellis said. “Just because your kid does something, it doesn’t make your kid a bad kid. Sometimes, people are fearful of what they don’t know or understand. We have to break that barrier and get parents to have those real conversations, to get involved in their children’s internet activity.
“We expect children, and that’s in the simplest term, we expect children to be mature beyond any other expectation of what we have on them on the internet. We wouldn’t expect a child that’s 10 years old to be able to get on the highway and drive. We wouldn’t expect a smaller child to be responsible around a firearm. We shouldn’t expect that of a child on the internet. That’s the thing we’re trying to get across is even though the internet has a lot of great things and it is needed and it is resourceful and we do have to embrace it because that’s the route we’re going whether we like it or not, but we’ve got to have those real talks.”
A child also has to know how to respond to sexts. Violations should be reported to a CyberTipline, reported to a school police officer, a school counselor, police officer or a parent.
“You can’t be blind to the fact your child could be exploited,” Ellis said. “Your child could make a mistake. We have to be involved.”
And remain vigilant until the threats – and the need for a Safer Internet Day – goes away.