How do I keep my child safe online? It’s a question that parents are increasingly asking of local teachers and counselors, law enforcement officials and each other.

There are myriad risks that kids assume – often unwittingly – when they interact on the internet, and there are no easy answers. Rather, protecting kids’ safety online requires vigilance and a commitment to keep abreast of the latest apps and sites kids are using. It requires talking about uncomfortable subject matter and recognizing disturbing realities. We often hear that keeping children safe is the responsibility of the entire community, and that is certainly the case when it comes to cyber safety.

When children go online, they have immediate access to friends, family. But they also have unfettered access to complete strangers, which can put unsuspecting children in harm’s way. Children who communicate with strangers online are easy prey for internet predators. In years past, we warned kids of “stranger danger” – strangers lurking around school playgrounds or hiding behind bushes scoping out their next victims. The reality is that today’s sexual predators troll for victims while hiding behind a computer screen or smartphone, taking cover in the anonymity the internet offers.

There is cyber bullying, when young people use text messages or social media platforms to bully other children. Oftentimes, this takes the form of “FOMO” – fear of missing out. Pictures are posted depicting young people having a great time and another child realizes he was left out.

There is the steady growth in “sexting,” when young people take images of themselves or others, either naked, or engaged in sexual acts, and then post them on social media or share them with one another via texting or an app. This can lead to “sextortion,” where such images are used as a form of blackmail to extract money from the victims, or even to force the victim into further acts of indecency.

Further, kids sharing certain graphic images could face the lifelong stigma of a court mandate to register as a sex offender.

While disturbing and shocking, this is the reality of cyberspace. This is the thorny online world our kids are trying to navigate, and we must do our part as a community to safeguard our kids.

Tuesday night, agents from the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation who regularly investigate such crimes, will present an information session on keeping children safe online.

Every parent should attend this session.

The conversation might be unpleasant and even uncomfortable. But it’s so much better to have those tough conversations before something terrible happens.

 

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