Officials urge parents to know what their kids are doing on social media and what apps or websites they frequent.

Alarming data from the Crimes Against Children Research Center may make parents stand up and take notice.

According to the center, 1 in 7 youth are contacted by an internet predator.

That statistic hit home earlier this month when 14 men were rounded up in a Jackson Township sex sting dubbed Operation Unsportsmanlike Conduct. Area law enforcement agencies collaborated to arrest the alleged child predators, who police say were using social media apps to lure teens to a meeting place for sexual activity.

When it comes to keeping your children safe online, communication is key, experts say.

Setting boundaries for social media use and online chats, and talking to your kids about the dangers lurking on the internet may be the best way to keep them from falling victim to a predator.

Maintaining boundaries

Being able to talk with your children about safe practices and knowing what they’re doing is critical, said Stark County Sheriff George Maier.

As a grandfather, Maier understands what it’s like to be busy with family and other commitments, he said. Though they’re often on-the-go, Maier uses time such as driving to an event to talk with his grandkids about things they are seeing online. Just having a conversation is a great place to start, he said.

“The best line of defense ... is to be more engaged in what they’re doing on their phone,” Maier said. “Ask questions, talk to your kids.”

It’s not uncommon for a child to resist separating from his or her phone, or to allow a parent to browse the search history, he added. Building that relationship of trust depends on the parent and the maturity of the child.

According to a 2018 study conducted by Hopelab and the Well Being Trust, 95% of youths ages 13 to 17 have a smartphone or access to one. Nearly half report using the internet “almost constantly.”

Boundaries can include establishing a technology timeout or having a location where family members put their phones to charge at night that is outside of the bedroom, Maier said.

Rick Bell, chief of the special investigations division at Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael C. O'Malley’s office, recommends establishing with your child what apps are permissible to use as soon as the child gets a smartphone or device.

The Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) is a division under the Cuyahoga County Prosector’s Office with O’Malley as chairman.

Having the conversation

When a child is communicating with someone online, they have no way of knowing who is on the other end, said Chief Mark Brink, of Jackson Township Police Department. The child might believe they’re talking to another kid their age when it could be a 50-year-old man, he said.

Children should end the conversation and report to a parent or trusted adult anytime someone asks for personal information or brings up topics of a sexual nature, Brink said.

“We just have to be so careful about who we're meeting that way and who we're giving information about ourselves to so that they can’t in some way use that against us to make us do things we wouldn’t do otherwise,” Brink said.

Some examples, he said, include sending nude photos that someone might save and use as blackmail later.

Talking with your children about online safety is a matter of check and balance, Brink said, especially as they age. There has to be a balance between a parent’s involvement and the child having his or her privacy.

Secrecy is a red flag parents should look out for, Brink said. If the child is paranoid about their parents seeing their cellphone or other electronic device, that could be a sign they’re on inappropriate websites or apps.

Not knowing what your child is doing puts them at risk, he said, and makes them vulnerable to online sexual victimization.

The tricky part of talking to your children about the dangers of the internet is to avoid sounding like you’re accusing them of something, Bell added. As a parent himself, Bell tries to use examples of when other kids have found themselves in trouble by using the internet unsafely.

"It’s hard for us as parents to know what they’re doing and to actually have that conversation,” Bell said.

Beware of some apps

The more technology advances, the more difficult it becomes to monitor what kids are doing online, Bell said.

Before the age of smartphones and tablets, parents could monitor what their children were doing by keeping the family desktop in the living room, he said. Now, children carry high-tech computers in their pockets.

“I think most people would be astonished at the many diff things their children were looking at,” Bell said, adding thousands of websites and apps are available with just a quick search.

Parents should express caution with any app that allows a child to upload a photo or video instantly, or apps and websites that allow someone to video chat with strangers. Some sites ICAC often warns parents about at programs and seminars are Omegle, a free site that connects strangers via video chat, and Calculator +, which is an app that appears to be a calculator but allows the user to hide images and videos.

In the ICAC division, Bell said, agents often pose as 12- to14-year old kids. When an agent connects with a predator, Bell said, it doesn’t take long before that person requests to meet in person or solicits for sex.

“If you wouldn't leave your front door open to allow a random stranger in, you don't want your child to talk to a random stranger with the click of a button,” Bell said. “... I think that’s why we’re always trying to be vigilant about this ... just making parents aware that this is important.”

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