JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With thousands of new social media sites and apps popping up each year, experts say parents need to be aware that their children are at risk now more than ever in their own homes.
On Tuesday, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams announced his detectives teamed with a dozen other law enforcement agencies for a child predator sting called "Operation: Duval." Seventeen men were arrested and two are wanted after investigators said they tried to meet undercover detectives posing as children for sex.
"There may not be any fixing of these people, but if the parents can get a hold of that and work on the prevention side of the equation, I think we will be in better shape as a community," Williams said.
The sheriff said there seems to be an endless supply of predators, and the I-TEAM found adults looking to prey on children in North Florida online while investigating new social media sites.
In July, while investigating popular apps, specifically LiveMe, the I-TEAM discovered live videos showing children and young teens interacting with adults. The kids were asked for personal information and were solicited to take off their clothes.
FBI agents say it’s a virtual hunting ground for pedophiles.
"I don’t think that any parent would be OK with strangers visiting their child in their child’s bedroom at night," Special Agent MacDonald, who works undercover with the FBI Crimes Against Children Task Force, told the I-TEAM in July. "That’s essentially what some of these smartphones and applications allow a predator to do."
Law enforcement officers are working every day to stop the threats, but they say parents are the first line of defense.
"You know, we spend a year preparing kids to drive a car," said Stacy Pendarvis, MSW, program director for the Monique Burr Foundation for Children. "We hand them a smartphone in a day and send them on their way, so that’s kind of scary."
Pendarvis helps teach parents through the foundation. She's concerned about apps that can pinpoint a user's location and dating sites aimed at teens, such as Tinder, OK Cupid, Yello and Hot or Not.
Her advice for parents who might not be as tech-savvy as their children:
You have to monitor what your kids are doing and have honest conversations with them."
She recommends paid sites, such as Bark and Surfi, where moms and dads can monitor their kids’ social media accounts. There’s also Life360, where parents can keep track of their loved ones by GPS.
They’re all helpful, but Pendarvis says nothing beats having an honest, open conversation.
"Technology isn’t going anywhere, so parents have to partner up with their kids and teach them how to use technology safely," she said.
Those steps may seem simple, but Pendarvis says parents can expect some pushback.
She says it’s a good idea to keep computers, tablets and cellphones out in the common areas of the home, and keep children from using them in private in their bedrooms, where they can get in trouble.
The Monique Burr Foundation for Children teaches "The 5 Safety Rules" to children:
To learn more about what each rule entails, visit mbfpreventioneducation.org/safety-club.
The Monique Burr Foundation for Children also offers free online training for parents. To access the online courses, click here.