SPECIAL REPORT: Is there a predator in your child's pocket?
In our world today, kids are growing up digital. Screen time can lead kids into scary situations, even with precautions in place.
Toddlers get iPads before they can even walk, and teens get a cell phone by age 12. But are these devices delivering a predator right into your child’s pocket?
Unfortunately, one local family has already become a victim of sexual exploitation just that way.
“It started with what we thought were harmless devices,” said one mother who asked that we conceal her identity in order to protect her daughter.
That “harmless device” turned into a nightmare for this Omaha family.
“She can't call people on it,” the mother said. “It all started with this simple
… It was originally for so she could keep a calendar, a schedule, and have an alarm.”
But soon began the alarming behavior.
“We discovered she was using the device in the middle of the night, but she would hide the device whenever we walked into the room,” the mother said.
Her daughter had downloaded chatrooms. Against house rules, she would communicate with boys — none she actually knew.
So mom took the iPod touch away.
That’s when her daughter sought out her brother’s Amazon Kindle.
“We realized that she had talked to an upwards of 90 different people,” the mother said.
They made a horrific discovery: It was much more than just talk.
“And then I would scroll through the conversations, and I saw images that she had sent, and they had sent back to her,” she said. “They were sexually explicit and inappropriate for a 12-year old inappropriate for anybody.”
Amie Konwinski, the founder of
, a local nonprofit that encourages smart choices in a digital world.
“If you’re online, there are no guarantees who the other person is on the other side of that screen,” she said.
That other person was no peer, but actually a predator, Konwinski said.
“Predators know that their kids are going to be alone in their bedroom at night with these devices, and they're easy targets,” she said.
Once a predator targets the victim…
“They can sell child pornography, definitely,” Konwinski said. “Child pornography is something that's just rampant. Their information is then shared on the dark web where pedophiles can log in.”
It’s a large-scale problem happening right here at home.
“You're dealing with platforms in different countries, but their caseloads are so big, and there are so many predators out there, they can't possibly catch them all,” Konwinski said.
So how do we fight this crime? The battle actually begins at home.
“Your children are their own first line of self-defense, and you're going to be able to build them up by talking to them, giving them the tools they need to look at what they're doing with their technology,” Konwinski said.
For this family: Their case is now being investigated by Omaha Police and the FBI.
With the investigation comes anger, doubt, and a lack of trust — a struggle this mom wishes for no other family.
“I think it can happen to any family,” the mother said. “I mean, we're present in her life. I mean, we thought we had everything locked down… We're a pretty close family — it's a little shocking. I don't know what we would have done different.”
What you can do
Amie Konwinski, founder of Smart Girl Society, a local nonprofit that encourages smart choices in a digital world, suggests:
- Have a digital contract with your kids, and go over the rules with them.
- Have a family charging station in a neutral place — like in the kitchen.
- Start them smart. If you want to allow your kids to have social media account, the recommended age is 13. Konwinski said Instagram is a good place to start because it lets you have your account on your phone, so you can monitor it.
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS
The Smart Girl Society resource for parents walks you through a long list of apps that out there and helps you determine whether they're safe, or why they're not. It also has links to help you set up parental controls that limit screen times on various devices, and suggestions on what sorts of restrictions to implement.
RESOURCES FOR TEENS
The Smart Girl Society resource for teens has links to places teens can reach out to for help.