CHESHIRE — When the family of a young person Liz Linehan knows was the target of child exploitation via the smartphone apps Tik Tok and FaceCast, the Democratic state representive for the 103rd District, wasted little time alerting other parents.
An unknown perpetrator had instructed the child to download FaceCast and lured her into a chatroom with numerous other children, Linehan learned. Then, she and other children were instructed to upload videos of themselves. If they didn’t, their families would be harmed.
Linehan, the House chair of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Committee on Children, urged parents to delete the FaceCast app if it is on their children’s phones. She also urged parents to monitor their children’s devices and have dialogues with them about child exploitation.
“I’m not an alarmist. I’’m a parent and a legislator and that’s why this stuff matters to me,” Linehan said. “The warning went out because this happened. I wanted to immediately get that out about kids’ phones and to remind parents to be vigilant.”
Linehan offers recommendations to parents, including that they should tell their children not to interact with people they don’t know, even if it appears that person might be another child. If a child is contacted by someone they don’t know, they should tell their parents immediately.
Parents should make sure their children know not to share information about their location or ever agree to meet a person they met online in person. Parents should also check their children’s phones and know what apps they’ve downloaded and messages they are sending and receiving, the legislator urged.
Cheshire resident Hilary Guilford said she has similar conversations with her children on a regular basis. Guilford said her children know she trusts them, but the issue is also about etiquette and how to navigate a social sphere where people may misrepresent their actual identities through online personas.
“You’ve got to teach your children how to navigate that. And you can’t teach them if you don’t know what’s on their phone,” Guilford said.
Linehan also recommended that parents monitor their kids’ devices daily and that they only allow them to use the devices in areas where adults are watching. Children under 16 years old shouldn’t be using social media. If younger children are using social media accounts, their settings should be private “at all times,” Linehan urged, recommending parents check often that those settings are intact.
“I have this conversation with my kids often. And I check my kids’ phones,” Linehan said. “The rule in my house is if you don’t let me check it, you automatically lose it. And if there’s something going on and you don’t tell me about it, you automatically lose it. But if something happens, you come to me of your own volition, you will be rewarded. That’s the rule in my house.”
Linehan said in addition to reminding parents to be actively involved in their children’s online activity, she also wants to empower children.
“I want to empower kids to know what to do in that situation. Always tell a trusted adult. Always,” she said.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children operates the CyberTipline, the nation’s centralized reporting system for suspected child sexual exploitation and online enticement. In 2017 alone, the center received more than 10.2 million reports, a number it says has been growing exponentially each year.
In addition to contacting local law enforcement, families can report incidents at that tip line, Cybertipline.com. Families can also call the tip line at 1-800-843-5678 (1-800-THE-LOST).
In Southington, Police Lt. Stephen Elliott, the department’s spokesman, said the officers who investigate crimes against children put together their own presentation about keeping children safe online.
That presentation covers computers, tablets, smartphones and other Internet-connected devices. Elliott said it has been shared with schools and parents.
“The big thing we try to stress to parents is computers and cell phones, most of their apps have privacy setting controls parents can put into play to keep kids off of unwanted sites,” Elliott said.
Kids shouldn’t be sharing information about their location, including GPS coordinates, and parents should have rules about how children use their phones and computers.
“It’s important, just like we talk about safety with drugs,” he said.
The Southington Police Department has investigated cases of online abuse. Typically those reports have been tied to an issue at school and with individuals children already know, Elliott said.
The department, along with many others, works with the national Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The department also works with Connecticut State Police when that agency is investigating allegations involving pornography, Elliott said.
“The apps, they do come out fast and furious. You certainly have to stay on top of it, with the way that they’re evolving,” Elliott said. “There’s so many out there, so quickly evolving and changing.”
Cheshire Police Lt. Michael Durkee said the best defense against online predators is proactive parents.
“The parents are the ones we lean on to be proactive with children,” Durkee said.