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Virtual learning? How to protect your child from online predators

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Westwood Heights Schools IT Director Roderick Norman said the Chromebooks and iPads being sent home have the same protections as the desktop computers at their Mount Morris Township schools. Pictured on Sept. 1, 2020 at Hamady Middle and High School. (Photo credit: Ron Hilliard/Mid-Michigan NOW)

MT. MORRIS TWP, Mich. - Students are relying on laptops more than ever before. As many schools turn to virtual learning to protect students and their families from COVID-19, there are indications that child predators are posing another threat.

“So, these predators are smart and they’re taking full advantage of the COVID pandemic and, again, the fact that children are online more,” said Kathy Hatem, director of communications at Enough Is Enough.

The nonprofit advocates for a safer internet experience, combats child exploitation, and arms parents with knowledge.

Hatem encourages parents to ask their child questions like: “Who are you talking to online? Who’s reaching out to you?”

She said predators seek personal information and opportunities to groom kids over the internet.

“So, because of that, children are, unfortunately, at increased risk for being exploited and that’s definitely a concern for parents.”

While picking up a Chromebook for her Hamady Middle School student, Megan Moss recommended that “you stay on top of everything.”

Westwood Heights Schools IT Director Roderick Norman said the Chromebooks and iPads being sent home have the same protections as the desktop computers at their Mount Morris Township schools. They feature web filtering software; which block unapproved sites, such as most social media.

“The things that we have in place limits those things. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s ways around those, obviously; but we try to put in safeguards for even those things.

Hatem said parents should check security features and ensure that controls and programs have been activated and remain intact.

“When you see these devices come home; first and foremost, look through them and go into settings.”

She said the rising number of online incidents involving suspected predators making contact with children should serve a stark warning for parents.

There were 13,268 reports of online enticement during the first half of 2020 (Jan. 1 - June 30), according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). That number was up nearly double from the same period last year (6,863).

“In the first quarter of 2020, NCMEC became aware of predators openly discussing the pandemic as an opportunity to entire unsupervised children into producing sexually explicit material,” said John Shehan, vice president of NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division, in a statement on the organization’s website.

Norman advised parents and guardians to watch their children and enhance security on any personal devices.

“Any kind of web filter out there that they can use that’s online provides parental controls and the parent controls that,” he said.

Hatem agreed that parental controls should be used, but believes “the best protection and best line of defense for your child is you as the parent monitoring their use. There is no better protection than that.”

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To learn more about resources to protect your family online, visit Enough Is Enough, Enough Is Enough's Internet Safety 101, or National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).