Terry McLaughlin: Be vigilant for our vulnerable children | TheUnion.com

Terry McLaughlin: Be vigilant for our vulnerable children

Terry McLaughlin

It’s hard to say when the “pause” button on our lives will be released, but even when businesses begin to reopen and community events are scheduled, it has already been determined by the Superintendent of Schools that the children of Nevada County will not be returning to school before the fall.

While parents and school districts are making every effort to continue teaching our children using online and “distance-learning” methods, there is no question that children are experiencing more free time during this period than even during a summer break. They are not hanging out with their friends, going to the movies or the mall, playing at parks, attending camp, sports or music practices.

More free time, for many children, means more “screen time”.

While our children are home and potentially enjoying more unsupervised screen time during this mandated lockdown — so are adult predators who are finding themselves at home during the normal work day. It is sickening to think that some predators are looking to exploit the coronavirus crisis, but the National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom has reported that they have found evidence of offenders actually discussing opportunities to do just that over online chat forums.

I hope all adults will take Linda Smith’s words to heart, and become “the most vigilant protectors of our youth.”

Dr. Marci Hamilton, CEO of CHILD USA, a nonprofit academic think tank focused on preventing child abuse and neglect, recommends that parents and caregivers be hypervigilant of all children at this time. She reminds us that most children do not normally have access to the internet during the school day, so “this is the perfect opportunity for predators to take advantage of children of all ages.”

Hamilton encourages parents to create a schedule for their children’s online use and be rigorous in the enforcement of that schedule. She also encourages parents to have frank discussions with their children and to let them know that “there are bad people who are intent on harming them online, so there can be no trust of new online ‘friendships.’” “Parents should impress to their children to never take off their clothes for anyone online,” she adds. “This sounds simplistic but should be stated, as this is what online predators want the most.”

Hamilton recommends the use of internet filters and suggests that parents should forbid children from being on their computers in closed rooms. “Screens need to be seen by parents and they need to be clear that if anything happens out of the ordinary online, their child should tell them immediately.”

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, predators often threaten minors through blackmail. “Victims should not be afraid to tell law enforcement if they are being sexually exploited,” said an FBI spokesperson said in a news release. “It is not a crime for a child to send sexually explicit images to someone if they are compelled or coerced to do so … In order for the victimization to stop, children typically have to come forward to someone they trust — typically a parent, teacher, caregiver, or law enforcement. The embarrassment of being enticed and/or coerced to engage in unwanted behavior is what often prevents children from coming forward.”

Shared Hope International founder and president Linda Smith, whose organization is dedicated to ending sex-trafficking, says that “Based upon historical trends of when kids are approached and groomed online by predators, we know that unsupervised time can result in unmonitored and harmful communications between children and strangers. Predators who may otherwise refrain from exploitative and abusive conduct while at the office may now be inclined to use their extra hours of unsupervised time to identify, groom, and abuse children online.”

“It’s safe to assume”, Smith continues, “that sex traffickers will take advantage of this new reality in which many of us are distracted and consumed by our own worries, planning, and isolation. Reluctantly, Shared Hope believes that, amidst the critical measures we are adopting to ensure the health and safety of ourselves and our communities, we must be the most vigilant protectors of our youth.”

Not only does Shared Hope International warn against the dangers to our children of online predators, but the organization is also highlighting trends in companies offering free viewing of pornography as a marketing strategy, indicating that statistics reveal online searches for pornography skyrocket by as much as 4,700% when children are out of school.

The organization is working to counteract these dangers by making their resources and Internet Safety Video Series free to download at sharedhope.org/internetsafety. The more people who know how to take action, the less opportunity traffickers will have to move in the shadows of the internet.

Parents should regularly monitor their child’s phone usage, screen time and search history. While this has always been important, it is even more critical now, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is changing so many areas of our lives. Hamilton, of CHILD USA, reiterates that “It will take all of us — government and the safe adults in their lives. Perhaps most important is that the country needs to understand this is a moment of extreme risk for children even if they are less likely to die from COVID-19. We simply cannot focus our attention solely on adults.”

And I hope all adults will take Linda Smith’s words to heart, and become “the most vigilant protectors of our youth.”

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.

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