It’s a jungle out there.
The Internet and the staggering growth of social media apps have created what one parent described during a Thursday night Edmonds Police Department presentation as “a perfect storm” for cyber crimes against young people.
Ranging from cyber bullying to malicious harassment to cyber stalking to coercing young people to share sexually explicit images of themselves and their friends, these crimes are the home turf of Edmonds Police Detective Stacie Trykar, who addressed a group of parents on how to protect their children from becoming victims.
The topic was “Internet and Social Media Safety: What Every Parent Should Know.”
Trykar, a 10-year veteran of the Edmonds PD, specializes in investigating crimes of sexual harassment and exploitation. And lately she has seen a major uptick in how many of these crimes begin in chat rooms and on social media.
“It’s all grown so fast,” she says. “There’s so many different social media apps these days, and new ones are literally being developed daily. Sadly, most parents are simply not aware of how easy it is for inexperienced young people to get in over their heads. And it can happen very quickly. Today 75 percent of first-encounter Internet-related sex crimes occur in online chat rooms.”
The anonymous nature of the Internet gives predators, stalkers and other cyber bad guys an ideal environment to lure the unsuspecting into compromising situations. Many use fake names and identities to gain the trust of their victims, whom they will often convince to share explicit photos, videos or other information that then can be used against them. Frequently this takes the form of blackmail, where the criminal threatens to post these online unless the victim agrees to continue sending more.
Trykar’s presentation stressed the exponential growth in sex-related crimes against minors that begin online.
Detailing the differences between the various crimes of cyber bullying, malicious harassment, cyber stalking, and the collection and distribution of sexually explicit images of minors, Trykar walked the group through the signs that could indicate your child is in danger of falling victim. She then went on to provide a list of what parents should be thinking about, what to look for, and what actions to take.
“The big thing is to be aware of what your children are doing online,” she said. “For many parents it means walking a fine line between respecting their children’s need for privacy and the parent’s need to protect them.”
Stressing that communication is critical, she suggested an array of open-ended discussion topics for parents and children designed to raise awareness and provoke thought about cyber activity, what’s safe and what’s risky. She also provided a list of common-sense practices including placing the family computer in a highly visible area of the home, knowing who is connecting with your children online, which apps they’re using, and how to use parental controls on cell phones, tablets and other devices.
“This is a very challenging area for law enforcement,” said Edmonds Assistant Police Chief Don Anderson, who was in the audience. “Sadly, using the Internet and social media to exploit the vulnerable is the full-time job of these bad guys, and every day new apps appear that give them new opportunities. Our best defense is to be aware, be vigilant, ask questions.”