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Letter: Teens using social media at risk of sexual predators

Teens using social media at risk of sexual predators

Another week has passed, and three more defendants have been charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with producing or receiving child pornography. A 13-year-old girl murdered in Virginia. These and other cases share the common trait of alleged predators luring and manipulating children over social media.

It’s common to see teenagers attached to their cellphones throughout the day. Everyone knows that today’s device is a powerful Internet access tool capable of connecting users to others throughout the world. Most parents seriously underestimate the frequency with which their children are exposed to sexually explicit texts and photographs.

According to one university study, 20 to 30 percent of teens will send or receive sexually explicit texts. Seventy percent of teenage girls will be asked to send a naked picture. As our investigations demonstrate, such requests come from both peers and predators seeking contact with vulnerable youth.

Neither denial nor ignorance provides any protection for children caught up in a perfect storm of technology and vulnerability. Rather, safety lies in constant parent/child communication, and adult education and familiarity with computer applications, teen realities and even language.

As Internet dangers have multiplied, parents today must be as conversant in discussing “bytes and bits” as they are in discussing the “birds and bees.” Kids are warned to avoid strangers, but they also need to know that strangers lurk online and online messages and photographs can be preserved forever. Not hitting “send” is the best defense against future regret.

I urge parents to take full advantage of parental controls to monitor usage, media activity and who their child is contacting. Learn to detect vault applications and icons used to conceal explicit videos and photographs.

Finally, know the common social media sites and terminology used. Some are shocked when they discover what the code words and symbols being used by their children really mean.

Being a teen can be exciting and difficult. Today’s technology and social media enhance both realities. By becoming a technology expert, parents and adults help children navigate these challenges before our office gets involved.

William Hochul

U.S. Attorney

Western District of New York