Hundreds of local children are being exploited online every year. Already this year in Duval County, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has received 140 cyber tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. More than 1/3 of them are videos or images that minors sent through electronic devices or social media applications.
Over in St. Johns County, a much smaller county, there were still 25 tips, and more than half of those cases are child sexual abuse videos that were self-produced by the child.
This dangerous illegal activity starts much younger than you can even imagine. Police told News4JAX one of the victims was as young as 5 years old.
St. Johns County Detective Cheynne Kroul said younger kids are even more at risk than teenagers because these children have no idea what they’re getting into online.
“Parents think that they have it all under control. And that’s certainly not always the case,” says Kroul.
That’s because the internet is in control in many households. Kids with tablets, phones and computers are given access to the unthinkable right under a parent’s nose.
“Children will find the ways whether it be getting on the internet and finding the ways around it or talking to their friends at school and finding ways around it, or their parents set up no parental locks on their phone, and they find ways around it. Children will 100% find a way to get to where they’re looking to go,” Kroul said.
Kroul said kids as young as 5 are seeing inappropriate videos online and they have no idea the dangers that are lurking behind the screen.
“I think what the biggest problem is, is parents give their children smart devices -- iPads, iPhone -- and they give them full access to the internet. So, they are just left to their own wonder and their own imagination. And they just get on the internet. And they search for things, and they find things and they duplicate things,” Kroul said.
It’s shocking and even with parental controls, kids can easily be groomed just by playing their favorite video game.
“Like your Fortnite and everything where the chat option is available. They talk to people and switch platforms. And the people will say, ‘I’ll give you this, I’ll give you this, I’ll send you this, if you do this for me,’” Kroul said.
The internet is now the dark alley that parents tell kids to never go down or like the warning: “Don’t talk to strangers.” Every time a child logs on they’re virtually walking down an alley and can run into a dangerous stranger that they never see.
“Every single time. And it’s the same thing. It’s when I was growing up, we didn’t have cellphones. So, it was if you didn’t walk down the dark street, you didn’t encounter a stranger. But now a child can innocently go online to open an Instagram account and they’re going to be flooded, especially if they’re putting their pictures out there,” Kroul said.
Detective Kroul said you must assume your child is going to be a victim of exploitation and have the conversation about internet dangers early and often. Also, she suggests grabbing their phones in front of them to check what they’re doing online. This makes it difficult for your kids to keep secrets.
“So having that conversation very early and going ahead and putting it in their mind that the internet is a dangerous place and to be safe about it. I think that can start at any age, and I think at any age is an appropriate time to just be completely honest with them about what’s out there on the internet,” Kroul said.
According to Pew Research presented in 2020, 46% of parents said their child, younger than 11, had encountered inappropriate videos on YouTube. There are so many ways to erase your internet or app footprint. Special agent CJ Goodman, who leads the FBI Jacksonville Crimes Against Kids investigative squad, said kids are savvy.
“We’ve seen where children are deleting certain applications, installing them when they’re at school, using them, and then they would delete them before they go home. So, if a parent would then review that, they wouldn’t necessarily be able to see that,” Goodman said.
Advice to protect kids online
Goodman points out there are a lot of ways to be in control of what your kids download in the first place.
“We advocate for family sharing. Android, Apple, they both have those kinds of things where you can set up a family sharing where your child’s device has to get permission from a parent device before an application can be downloaded. If that’s not set up, we advocate for going into the device and trying to look at the application history,” Goodman said.
He said if for some reason they get an app you don’t approve of and delete it before you can get to the phone, there’s also a path to uncover the secret application.
“There’s also the password keychain. When you say that you want the device to remember the password, you only must use your thumbprint or something like that to access the device application so you don’t have to type in the password each time, that password is saved in a keychain somewhere on the device. And knowing where that is and accessing that, and seeing what passwords are on there, because if it’s a password to an application that’s not on the phone, then I think that warrants a conversation with the child on where that’s being accessed from and utilized,” Goodman said.
Goodman and Kroul both agree no matter how much you monitor the device, a conversation about the rules and the online dangers is always your first step.