OP-ED: Online predators have no borders

I had picked my editorial for this month and was ready to put it into words, right down to new emergency orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and a podcast I recently listened to. on “Sextortion”.

These two subjects and the association they have with our young people have started to eat away at me. This editorial is not meant to be some sort of political forum or take sides on the issue of the pandemic. This is just an observation and a general concern that I have for the children and young adults in our communities.

When it comes to mental health, young adults are among the most vulnerable demographic groups. They are sandwiched between the innocence of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood, a very confusing and emotional stage in life. Insert a global pandemic where you see some adults acting like children more mistaking their development as mature young adults.

Since the start of the pandemic, new data has raised legitimate concerns for young adults and their mental health. In a recent survey commissioned by the National 4-H Council and conducted by the Harris Poll of approximately 1,500 teens, 7 in 10 teens reported having mental health issues in one way or another. They noted that they were struggling with anxiety, depression, with a great deal of feeling that they were more stressed than usual.

All of our lives have been completely uprooted by the pandemic. Children and young adults move from the classroom to virtual learning, back to the classroom, back to virtual learning. It is a vicious cycle that is mentally and emotionally draining the whole family.

School district authorities are doing their best to keep the health and safety of their students and staff a top priority, but that doesn’t help matters. At the same time, student sports seasons, band concerts and other club extracurricular activities are all postponed, or in most cases canceled.

Not all families have the chance to pursue individualized personal training activities to keep their children active. I’ve always been a firm believer that staying active is good for a person’s mental and physical health, but that’s not always possible if a family has limited financial means.

Children have lost their bond with their friends and many find it difficult to spend most of their time at home, unable to participate in activities that provide them with an outlet. One of the most important findings (as reported in the same poll that was seen earlier) was the study that 61% of our teens during the first part of the pandemic lockdown had an increased sense of loneliness, direct result of the separation of friends and classmates.

This brings me to a podcast I listened to recently regarding “Sextortion” and our youth. With the increase in screen time our young people spend away from others, especially those who are pre-teens and early teens, they are spending more time on portable devices, playing games or doing scroll through social media apps. With this extra free time, our young people are more likely to be targeted by online predators.

During my tenure as the Department’s Academic Liaison Officer, I spoke to students about “Stranger Danger.” .

Today, it’s not just the physical contact these children potentially have with strangers, but the indirect contact they have through portable media devices.

Our children are being targeted, cared for and exploited by online predators. They prepare children by threatening them to send pictures and spread rumors about them to their friends. These predators will go so far as to threaten to chase them and their loved ones away to harm them unless they continue to keep the video connection they have and do the increasingly graphic acts in front of the camera. .

The FBI calls this “Sextortion”.

As a law enforcement agency, we find this more common, not isolated. The more screen time our young people spend on their multimedia devices and the more they are online, the more real this problem becomes.

Parents, we need to be more aware of the online games and websites our children are on that allow strangers to interact with them directly. We need to educate ourselves with parental controls. Any media device your kids have access to that has the ability to chat with strangers online allows potential predators on the other end to victimize your kids.

These predators will pretend to be anyone; in fact, they are very skilled in the art of manipulation. They will reach out to your child as if they are a friend or someone their age, not the adult they really are.

Predators will collect information about the child, much like an investigator would do to learn things about him, his family, friends, interests, etc. From there, they move on to the grooming stage, to allow the young to lower their guard.

In my work, I have seen many instances of this over the years. Yes, even in our small community. Online predators know no boundaries. Once again this year, a 14-year-old girl from Big Rapids was communicating with a man posing as much younger than the 46-year-old man he actually was.

We investigated and identified that he was from Washington State. At the time of the complaint, he was on his way to Big Rapids to meet our victim. Following the seizure of her multimedia devices and being unable to continue communicating with her, the suspect, who was halfway across the country, turned around and left.

We turned our investigation over to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in Washington, which further investigated and uncovered more victims.

As the crime continues, the child or teen is asked to send more and more photos, which increases their feelings of guilt and fear of what they are doing. It is a scary cycle, where they fear if they don’t do as they are asked to be exposed or harmed for themselves or their family members. The devastating impact it has on our young people cannot be minimized.

Their mental health and relationships with others are affected, with their grades in school declining, isolating themselves from friends and family and in some cases leading to self-injurious behaviors. The effects of this trauma will have a huge impact on the child, robbing him of any innocence he has.

Experts advise us to keep multimedia devices out of bedrooms and bathrooms and to turn off Wi-Fi at night when possible. Also be aware of what you and your children are sharing on social media. At the end of the day, the best thing we can do is have open and clear communication with your children about an alien danger. People aren’t always what they seem, and the intentions of those you communicate with on the other end of the phone aren’t always genuine and well-meaning.

In these difficult and trying times, we must continue to care for the mental and physical well-being of our children. This is such an important stage of development. As parents and members of the community, we must do our best to keep our children safe, despite the circumstances around us. Children are our future.

We need to make it as positive and brilliant as possible.

Brian Miller is a detective in the Big Rapids Department of Public Safety.

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