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Cyber child exploitation heightened with more time being spent online during pandemic

Updated: Feb. 9, 2021 at 11:41 PM EST
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COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - With more kids online during the pandemic, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports a 90 percent increase in calls to their CyberTipline.

Micah’s Promise Executive Director Bobbi Starr says 53 percent of children 11 years old in the U.S. have their own smartphones or tablets.

“It’s not something we need to blame the children for. It’s something we need to protect the children from and, you know, with more and more kids online wherever children go online, predators are going to go online,” Starr said.

In their recent child porn crackdown, the FBI says Jose Zafra of New York used multiple Snapchat accounts to extort victims by using flattery, lies, and other methods to get them to create child porn. The FBI reports Zafra’s victims in the child porn ring are from across the country, including Columbus.

Starr says TikTok and Instagram are other apps commonly used by predators.

“Any app a predator can use. If there’s a way to message between individuals, any app can be used,” she said.

Starr says parents need to look out for any changes in their child’s behavior.

“If the child starts spending more time on the laptop, more time online. If they start to isolate themselves more time in their room, secretive behavior. Often times, what predators will do is they will use, they will psychologically isolate the child and get the child to spend more time with only them so that they’re the only influencer in the child’s life,” explained Starr.

If your child is a victim of an online predator, experts say to immediately call 911.

“An investigator or a law enforcement personnel will come out and we’ll try to find a profile to get the actual address of that person where they’re coming in contact with and basically build an investigation off that to have the true identity of the sexual predators there are. They’re actually trying to entice and persuade, and flatter some of our kids today,” said Capt. Tony Cooper with the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office.

Starr says the next step is making a report to the CyberTipline and then look for counseling for their child.

“If it’s a situation where a child has been sexually exploited, then they actually fall under the state and the state has to provide therapeutic for that child because now they’re a victim of a crime,” said Starr.

Starr says parents need to know where their child is going online, who they’re with via the computer and how long they will be online. Even with parents who think they have their child’s social media on lockdown, Starr says there are still ways predators can message a child. Starr says there are tools available to help parents monitor their child’s social media apps like Bark.

Starr encourages parents to have frequent, open conversations with their kids about what can happen online.

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