The coronavirus continues to impact American lives in more ways than we could have imagined. Now we learn that it's a driving force behind a 93-percent increase in the number of children sexually solicited online, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Since the country's virtual lockdown, kids are spending much more time online and parents need to be on the lookout for predators. Online child sex predators have been more active than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pretending to be kids themselves, they ask their victims for nude pictures, and even arrange to meet them for sex or to force them into slavery.
Last month, authorities arrested 34 men in Fresno, California as part of Operation COVID Chat Down. The suspects thought they were trapping 12 and 13-year-olds when they were actually communicating with undercover cops posting as kids.
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Too often predators get away with it, according to Rania Mankarious, the CEO of Houston Crimestoppers (https://crime-stoppers.org/) one of the nation's largest crime prevention organizations.
"The access to our kids is there through online gadgets," she told CBN News. "You think of a child predator who may have to deal with restrictions of being away from a school or away from a mall. Well, online those don't apply. They are looking for kids. They're just like cockroaches all over the online world looking for kids to target."
Parents often make the mistake of thinking their children would never be targeted by child sex predators. Instead, parents need to understand the danger and then carefully explain it to their children.
"I'll always say that the predator's greatest wish is that the family stays naive. That the parents are naive, that the kids are naive, it gives them an open segue into the house," Mankarious said.
Predators usually contact kids through social media, whether on phones, tablets, or computers. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are just the tip of the iceberg. Kids are drawn to new and exciting apps like Tik Tok nearly every week.
This reality can seem overwhelming to parents, many of whom aren't very tech-savvy. However, Mankarious says parents can keep up through websites like Crimestoppers, Common Sense Media, and Bark.
"They are really detailed in walking parents through dangers and trends and how to protect their phones," Mankarious explained. "You can actually go through this whole questionnaire about what kind of computers you use, what kind of firewall you have, do you use Chrome or Google or what search engine you use, what apps. And it will literally create a customized platform for you, or how to protect your kids, and rates the apps and shares what's wrong with them."
Parents are advised to literally look at each app on their child's phone and check them out. Many kids and parents alike don't know that Apple Apps carry age ratings that identify sexual content and nudity.
Children must never reveal their location and should double-check apps, like Snap Chat, which automatically provide locations as a default setting.
"So we encourage kids to disable, whenever possible, GPS tracking devices from any of these apps because beyond not overtly sharing information you can be sharing that information without even knowing. Just by having the phone in your pocket," Mankarious said.
Most important, kids need to understand they should never meet in person someone they've gotten to know online. In fact, they should tell their parents, and perhaps even the police if someone they met online is pressuring them to get together face-to-face.