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With an explosion of online activity due to virtual instruction and work-from-home mandates, New Jerseyans’ lives are increasingly moving online. But with an embrace of the digital world comes dangers, especially for kids and teens.
“As children return to virtual learning this fall, they will be spending even more time online, in many cases without any in-person teacher supervision or peer contact,” Attorney General Grewal said, according to a press release from the Office of the Attorney General. “This may make them even more vulnerable.”
In August, 21 individuals were charged for sexually exploiting children online. Cyber tips to the New Jersey Regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force increased 50 percent from last year since the pandemic began in March, OAG said.
Now that the school year is back in full swing, here are a few ways for families to protect themselves from suspicious or dangerous internet behavior.
Look out for these apps
The ICAC Task Force has found predators using these apps in the past: Kik, Skout, Grindr, Whisper, Omegle, Tinder, Chat Avenue, Chat Roulette, Wishbone, Live.ly, Musical.ly, Paltalk, Yubo, Hot or Not, Down, Tumblr and Discord as well as games like Fortnite and Minecraft.
From randomized chat rooms to dating apps, we broke down each of the apps and what to look out for.
“We urge parents to be vigilant about the online activities of their children and warn children that the strangers they meet on popular social media sites, apps and gaming platforms may be out to harm them,” Grewal said, according to the press release. “We will continue to work overtime to arrest child predators and those who participate in the cruel exploitation of children by sharing child sexual abuse materials.”
Protect your personal information
Kids should give out their personal information sparingly. Any info offered can be used by identity thieves, hackers and cyberbullies.
Personal info can include one’s name, address, age, birthday, telephone number, password, school name, parents’ name, schedule or location.
“It is absolutely critical that children and teens know they should never give out any form of personal information over the computer without first consulting a parent,” reads a post on computer safety from the cybersecurity company Norton Lifelock. “Online predators often think of sneaky ways to gain information from young ones which can ultimately put them in incredible danger.”
Maintain parental limits
Cybersafety experts urge parents to stay attuned to their child’s online activity and set limits.
There are a number of ways for parents to create boundaries. These can include using a filtering or blocking software that restricts inappropriate material, monitoring software that tracks web history or special browsers that only allow access to a list of sites. Experts also urge families to keep computers in common areas and not in bedrooms.
“The best tool a child has for screening material found on the Internet is his or her brain,” reads a tipsheet from the National Crime Prevention Council. “Teach children the dangers of exploitation, pornography, hate literature, excessive violence, and other issues that concern you, so they know how to respond when they see this material.”
Set an example
Children are impressionable. If they see unsafe or inappropriate behavior online from their parents, they’re likely to mimic it.
“It’s not just kids who engage in cyberbullying or sexting,” reads a letter on preventing online harassment from Harvard Medical School. Although they usually won’t admit it, youths look to parents and other adults for cues about how to behave in the world — and online. Set the right tone online, and your child will notice and be inclined to follow.”
Be wary of chat rooms
Chat rooms are often breeding grounds for Internet danger. Online predators have been known to use them to reach young children and try to persuade them to meet up in person.
Because of the anonymity of chat rooms, it’s easy for people to use them to assume a different identity.
“When in chat rooms remember that not everyone may be who they say they are,” reads a tip from the New Jersey State Police’s Digital Technology Investigations Unit. “For example a person who says ‘she’ is a 14-year-old girl from New York may really be a 42-year-old man from California.”
Watch for warning signs
Look out for red flags that might indicate that your child is in danger.
If a child becomes defensive or turns off the computer when they see a parent enter the room, becomes obsessive about using the Internet or angry when they can’t go online, receives gifts from a stranger, talks on the phones with strangers or becomes withdrawn, it could be a sign they’re being groomed or involved in an inappropriate activity.
You can report any concerns or incidents to the CyberTipLine, operated through a collaboration of FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Secret Service, military criminal investigative organizations, the U.S. Department of Justice, Internet Crimes against Children Task Force, and other state and local law enforcement agencies.
The AG’s office assembled a list of reporting resources as well which includes numbers and links for the ICAC Task Force Tipline, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline, and the state’s Crisis Text Line.
As schools reopen across N.J., we want to know what is and isn’t working. Tell us about it here.
Josh Axelrod may be reached at email@example.com. Have a news tip or a story idea about New Jersey schools? Send it here.