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‘Download it yourself’: Advice from experts on how to monitor kids’ online activities

CHARLOTTE — Channel 9 is going in depth on an important safety issue in our community.

Local law enforcement is cracking down on sexual predators soliciting children online. A former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted these cases told Channel 9′s Erica Bryant they’ve seen so much of this, they’re calling it an epidemic.

In response, Bryant has gathered some tips from experts about how parents can protect their kids. If your child has a phone, tablet, gaming system or any device with a communication feature, here’s some advice.

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‘If you download it yourself, you’ll know a lot better’

“For every parent, what I would recommend is do your own research, know what apps children want to use or are using,” said Cortney Randall, a former assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. “Download it yourself, figure out how you block somebody, what information is publicly available, how you friend somebody, if they’re able to hide anything, have secret accounts. If you download it yourself, you’ll know a lot better what they’re using.

“Talk to your children repeatedly, constantly. Share with them news stories. Share the news releases with them so that they understand that this is actually happening to other children in our community. And the repercussions of it -- talk to them about how they can lose control of an image or a text or anything they send to anybody, because once it’s out there, they have no control over where it goes or who sees it. And make sure they understand how serious that is.

“And then finally, in that communication with your child, make sure you have a strong relationship with them that when they see something inappropriate online -- because they will -- that they know they can come to you and talk to you and let you know what they saw. Because unfortunately, sometimes children get scared and they are embarrassed, or they’re afraid they’re going to get in trouble. And they end up getting deeper and deeper into trouble. And this can have some pretty drastic, terrible outcomes.”

Parents turn to other options to keep kids safe

Some families are making their homes screen-free altogether. They say parental controls don’t work because kids just find a way to get around it.

Melanie Hempe, a local nurse, promotes raising kids without social media and video games after her oldest son became so addicted to gaming that he dropped out of college. She says she researched how tech impacts dopamine, serotonin and cortisol in the brain. She then launched a nonprofit called Screen Strong to give parents another option.

“We have a 14-day challenge and we have a 30-day challenge. And we help parents just back out. So maybe you’ve made a decision, you’re looking back, you’re thinking, ‘oh my goodness, I never should have given given my eighth-grader that phone,’” Hempe said. “So we help parents take a step back, we educate them on just the basics of this science piece that’s really important. And then we walk them through the steps -- how to remove it and how to get your kids back. Because we lost our kids.”

(WATCH: Former AUSA shares how parents can help their kids safely use online platforms)

‘It can come from anywhere’

“We’ve seen chats with children as young as eight or nine years old, all the way up to age 17,” Randall says. “We see them come from all different parts of our community. We see children who have been solicited through their Xbox, or through online gaming, it’s not just the apps.

“So parents need to be aware that it can come from anywhere, it can happen to any child, so that they need to be proactive in what they can do to protect their own children.”

>> What online platforms are kids and teens using and how can they do it safely? Click here to read more.

‘I always advocate for parents to be very involved’

“I find this to be extremely important, because to me, being able to get the parents involved is our first line of defense from keeping a child from being a victim,” Randall said. “So I always advocate for parents to be very involved when it comes to this.

“When it comes to a specific family, they’re going to have to look at their own family unit, decide what kind of rules they’re going to have, if they are adding use of a phone or a particular app, and when they can use it, or how long they can use, or what age they have to be to use it.

“So when it comes to making those personal decisions, what I advise is to think about [this]: You would never leave your front door open and just let anybody in the world walk into your front door, up to your child’s bedroom any time of day and night, and shut the door and be in there alone. But if you let them have a phone or a tablet or access to the internet, that is what you’re doing if you’re not monitoring it -- some behavior, putting some rules or restrictions just like you do on who visits them in person, because any person can access into that device.”

Resources

Teen Health Connection has a free “Teens and Technology” course online for parents to help them learn to better protect their children in this social media age. Click here for more information. You can also click here to learn about other courses they offer.

Screen Strong has resources for parents who want to take their kids and/or families off social media altogether. Click here for information. Screen Strong also has information for parents interested in getting a phone for their child that isn’t a smartphone. Read more here.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also has a cyber tip line you can call if you find anything suspicious that you want to report. To protect your child or other children, law enforcement wants to hear from you. Call 1-800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678). You can also report online by clicking here.

Common Sense Media put together a list of safer social media and messaging apps for children. You can click here for more information.

(WATCH BELOW: Cabarrus Co. band teacher accused of trying to meet child online for sex, deputies say)

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