Protecting your kids from online predators

(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - Every day in Region 8, online predators are after your children.

"When you go to bed tonight, it'll be happening," said Detective Earnest Ward with the Jonesboro Police Department. "This is a predator, and they are after these children."

In 30 years, Ward has seen it all, children who fall victim to internet crimes.

"I see children involved in sexually explicit situations," he said. "A child is victimized, and that video or photo is shared on the internet for years."

As social media hits new heights, with things like picture sharing and chat-based apps, it's a problem stacked higher on Ward's desk.

"A predator finds them, they befriend them on the internet, they get into messaging them, chatting with them," Ward said.

Region 8 News spoke with multiple teens about social media and just how safe they are online.

"For me, I'm on Facebook and Instagram, scrolling through and for a lot of people my age Snapchat is a big thing," said Hadley Crocker, a Jonesboro teen. "I'm probably on it more than I realize I am."

One teen told us about Snapchat, the picture-sharing app that many teens use to rack up streak points. The pictures your children send over the app vanish after a certain amount of time.

"But, they don't," Faith Degaro, a Jonesboro teen told Region 8 News. "Anyone on your friends' list can screenshot it."

These teens, like most, think they are careful online. They each said they do not talk to people they don't know.

However, they also said they do not know all of their social media friends personally, which Ward said is a recipe for disaster.

"These predators may say they are in Little Rock, but they could be sitting next door watching you with a pair of binoculars," Ward said. "They never have their real name, seldom where they live. They are preying on children a thousand different ways."

Detective Ward and his team have helped investigate missing teens, something that has happened twice here in Region 8 in the past three months.

"Never, ever, ever trust a teenager," says a parent whose child became victim to online dangers.

Region 8 News hid the identity of the parents to protect the victim.

"It doesn't matter how much trouble your child never gets into, or how good of a student your child is," the teen's mother said.

"Don't ever assume it won't happen to your child, that's your first mistake," the father said.

[AG warns about sexual predators getting secret video of young people in app]

The Region 8 couple thought their daughter would never fall victim to internet crimes.

But, behind closed doors, she was secretly conversing with several people online.

"What's been discovered in this case, these are the things horror flicks can't be made of because you can't allow it on screen," the mother said.

It took several days of waiting before this family found relief.

Their daughter was tracked down by police hundreds of miles away with a man police said was sexually grooming her online.

"A gentleman picked her up and took her across state lines," the teen's father said.

It happened overnight with the couple waking up to their living nightmare.

"It's worse than death, it's worse than knowing your child is dead," the mother said.

Their daughter vanished without a trace, leaving the couple with no sign of her for days.

"The chances of our child being found alive were less than 3%," the father said.

That is what investigators told the couple. Thankfully, their child landed in that 3%.

Now they're doing their part to help educate other parents about online safety.

"Parents, please make sure that you know every password for every device that they touch," the mother said. "We knew all of them that we thought we needed to know, and we did not."

The couple said the best advice they can give other parents is to use the social media apps your children are using.

"Know more about the apps than they do," the mother said.

Detective Ward travels to schools to teach children and parents about the dangers of being online.

He hosts seminars with information to help parents better understand how to keep up with the evolving social media life.

To keep children safe online, Ward suggests parents put internet devices, such as computers and smartphones, in a family room.

He said a child should never have access to the internet in their bedroom without parental supervision.

Ward also suggests that parents charge their child's phone in their bedroom at night.

He also advocates tracking devices on phones and computers.

"There are many out there," Ward said. "Some are free, some cost money, but parents need a good program that filters unsafe sites."

It's important, he says, for parents to be one step ahead of their child by using and knowing more about social media apps than the kid does.

"My goal through this is to hopefully save one child's life," Ward concluded.

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