CARAWAY, AR (KAIT) - Would you have a complete stranger babysit your children? How about letting a few strangers in your home to talk with your kids when you're not there? In a way, that's what many parents are doing and they may not even know it.
Where does it all start? Social networking… Just about any parent of a teenager will tell you that teens and social networking go hand-in-hand. You almost can't find a teen, or a tween, in our area "without" a Facebook Page. And there-in, lies the problem.
Who's watching and talking with our kids?
Social networking is communication that's replaced the telephone.
"I like my computer," said Abbee Anderson, a 12-year-old at Riverside East Elementary.
"People may say that they know you, but they don't really," stated Nik Anderson, a 14-year-old from Riverside Junior High School.
"When I get on, I just talk and do my flairs," explained Keech Wilmoth, a 10-year-old from Riverside East Elementary.
Three children, all from the same family in the small town of Caraway.
"How many (Facebook) friends do you have," asked Diana Davis, Region 8 News reporter.
"129," responded Keech.
Abbee has 132, Nik 154.
"Do you worry about your kids," asked Diana of Brandee Roberson.
"Yes, constantly," she said.
Brandee Roberson is a computer savvy mom. She's pursuing a degree online through Arkansas Northeastern College and she didn't hesitate when we posed a question on our Facebook page about computer safety and children. She agreed to let us find out just how safe her kids are on-line.
"I feel like I patrol it pretty well," said Brandee. "But you never know what's lurking out there."
And JPD Detective Ernest Ward agrees.
"This is a hunting ground for predators," said Det. Ward.
Detective Ward should know. He works the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
"Whether they're predators, financial predators or whatever. Whatever they're looking for, they can find it here," stated Detective Ward.
And that's a growing problem. More than a quarter of children between the ages of 8 and 12 are now appearing on Facebook. The site specifically says no one under age 13. Nik is 14. Abbee is 12 and Keech is 10.
"You know you're giving them access to adults things that only adults should see," said Detective Ward.
It's not just content Ward worries about. Five years ago, a 14-year-old Jonesboro girl was abducted by a man she met on the internet and taken to Kentucky. By the time authorities caught up with Charles Ray Wise, he had reportedly already dug her grave. Thankfully, the girl was found alive at a local motel.
"Everybody in my class has a Facebook except for maybe two or three, and they're gonna get one because you can really talk to people," said Abbee.
If everybody's doing it, how can a parent say "no?"
Brandee believes her best defense against strangers is a good offense. Once one of her children writes or posts on Facebook, a copy goes to her cell phone. The family computer is in the middle of the living room where there are lots of eyes on the screen—not tucked away in a bedroom. Adult content is blocked, and she's taught each child to "not" give out personal information. So how are her children doing when it comes to safety on the internet? Detective Ward takes a look.
"Let's go to Nickolas. Here are parent's names…" said Det. Ward. Pictures posted, parents' names, a school name, even a child's list of friends reveals information.
"And from there, how long's it going to take in a town the size of Caraway before a predator not only could target the children, they can also target the parents—as an identity theft," said Det. Ward.
And then, there are the games, or applications, better known as "aps. That's Abbee there with someone or several someones she doesn't know.
"On Yoville, I do talk to some people. And when my friends are on, we try to go to parties and hang out with other people," said Abbee.
"The biggest problem I see is the game," said Det. Ward. "Because in the game, who are they? Who are they playing with?"
"These people are not her friends," said Brandee.
"We have predators that go into these on-line games and they target children right there," said Det. Ward.
They can also target children by going "through" their friends. And that makes it crucial, parents stress that a friend is someone you "really" know.
"A lot of these kids think it's really cool and go down through there and they just start adding friends. They don't look at who they are because they want that number up really high," said Det. Ward. "That's not safe! I mean it's not!"
The more pictures posted… the more information lives in cyberspace.
"If I go here and just hold it down," points Det. Ward. "That's Randy with his little buddy."
Unfortunately, Det. Ward finds pictures that were innocently posted sometimes turns up on the computers of people dealing in child porn, or would-be predators; instead of the friends they were intended for.
"The internet is just opening the door," said Det. Ward.
All in all, how did Nik, Abbee and Keech do when it comes to computer safety?
"I think they're doing great," said Det. Ward. "I really do. Not a lot of information on all three pages."
Now, would your children pass the test? To find out, take our challenge. Sit down at your computer and check the computer's history. See where they're going. Check their Facebook page regularly and watch what's being said. If you're not comfortable with comments here, that's a red flag. Do something about it. Phone numbers and addresses should never appear. Nor should comments like. "I'm grounded." Predators use that as a wedge to get between children and their parents.