In the pre-internet era, "stranger danger" meant shady white vans and enticements of free candy. But in today's mobile-technology-fueled world, child predators now have an almost unlimited number of ways to lure young victims — and oftentimes, doing so is easy as one click of a smartphone application.
"Over 20 percent of kids under 12 had already been approached in some form or fashion with something that made them uncomfortable online or through text messaging," said Homeland Security Investigations representative Shawn Owens at Thursday evening's "Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Keep Your Kids Safe" presentation at Sam Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Cartersville.
"Your kids are only as safe as what you make them be."
The event was hosted by Advocates for Children, with Bartow Collaborative Executive Director Doug Belisle serving as moderator for a roughly two-hour panel discussion.
"Our mission is to strengthen our community of families by offering safety, comfort and hope to children and preventing child abuse in all its forms," said Advocates for Children CEO and President Rachel Castillo. And that's something each panelist strives for every day, she said, as law enforcement, government service and education sector employees.
The threat of online child predators isn't a remote one, Owens said. He cited the recent "Operation Paladin" sting earlier this month, which resulted in 20 individuals throughout north Georgia being arrested on suspicions of either violating the state's Computer or Electronic Pornography and Child Exploitation Act or "trafficking of persons for labor or sexual servitude."
Of those 20, roughly half were residents of Bartow County.
Owens said Homeland Security went into the operation hopeful they would arrest five people over a three-day period. "We hit six people the first day, nine people the second day, four the next day," he said. "It was overwhelming."
The ubiquity of the internet and smartphones, Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent Renea Green said, has made it easier than ever for child predators to target young prey. A common tactic, she said, is luring in children via online video gaming.
Parents may teach their children from an early age to not talk to strangers or give out personal information, but many unwittingly do precisely that while playing popular games like "Fortnite" and "Roblox."
"They get so caught up in playing this game that they don't realize that over the course of weeks or months, they're giving all that information out," she said. "If you are going to allow your children to play these games and have these apps, as a parent you have to know how these games operate … can you chat back and forth?"
As Cartersville Police Department investigator Sgt. Patrick Hooton noted, such games allow children to communicate with practically anyone across the world. Many times, he said adult predators will pose as children the same age as their victims, and slowly cull personal details from them — their interests, their sports activities, even their class schedules.
The end result, Owens warned audience members, could be "sextortion" — a relatively recent form of cyber-crime that entails predators convincing young victims to send them explicit photos or videos. Once those videos and images are obtained, the predator then blackmails the child, threatening to leak the footage they've already acquired to their friends and family if they don't send them more material.
"They're very, very difficult to prosecute because the true predators, they know what they're doing," Owens said. "They can swap [Internet Protocol] addresses, they can make their tracks untraceable."
These criminals, Green said, are "extremely devious" and often extort numerous victims at a time. "There was another agent in my office, she actually worked an extortion case for two years until she was finally able to identify the guy," she said. "And he had over 50 victims throughout the U.S."
Children's Advocacy Center (CAC) program director Amanda Tant said Bartow County isn't immune from such crimes.
"We are working extortion cases, child pornography cases," she said. "These are local cases, these are not cases that are far away. These are kids that go to school with your kids, these are kids that are here in this community."
Even children who don't send explicit content over the internet aren't unsusceptible from falling prey. Green recounted one predator who took non-explicit photos of children from Facebook and Twitter and digitally altered them to appear to be obscene material.
"He took innocent, appropriate photos and morphed them into inappropriate photos, made a collage of them and actually went so far as to track these girls down and mail letters to them," she said. "Imagine, as a parent, getting that letter and reading that."
Panelists agreed that underage sexting remains a problem in the local community.
"It's not just high school, we're seeing it in middle school," said Cherokee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Rosemary Greene. "We're not talking about 15-year-olds, we're talking 12-year-olds, so this is something that we've got to have a very frank conversation with your daughters and sons about."
Tant said it's even a problem affecting elementary schoolers.
"At the CAC, we have seen children as young as 8 sharing nude pictures," she said.
As for what constitutes sexting, Green said there's still some ambiguities from a legal standpoint. "What I think is lewd and lascivious, you guys might not think the same thing," she said. "But any nude photos that you take of yourself can be considered child pornography. You have to look at each one on its face to see exactly what that is, but we're seeing a huge increase with our high school girls … the girls are very, very aggressive."
She recounted one incident where a teen showed his girlfriend explicit photos of his previous girlfriend. The new girlfriend then began circulating the photos to her friends, "and before you know it, now pictures of poor Sally are all over the place."
Incidents of the like, Green said, put law enforcement officials in a bind. While those who distributed the images of the victim could certainly be arrested for possession and dissemination of child pornography, the victim could also find herself staring down three felonies for not just possessing and distributing illicit material, but manufacturing it as well.
"I don't think anyone on this panel is in the business of putting juveniles in jail for taking inappropriate photos," she said. "It's just that's what these kids are getting into and most of them don't see it being an issue."
If parents suspect their children are being victimized by online predators, Greene said they shouldn't hesitate to contact the police.
"These are some of the most vulnerable individuals that we deal with," she said. "For the protection of your child and other children in our community, you need to call and make a report, we need to know what's going on."
And if one's child is targeted, Cass Middle School guidance counselor Tracey Moore asked parents to maintain their composure — and never blame their son or daughter for what happened to them.
"Keep calm, because that's why a lot of kids don't come to their parents," she said. "They're afraid of them getting in trouble because they were probably doing something or on a website or in a chatroom or whatever they weren't supposed to be on."
Continuing, Moore said parents have to do a better job explaining the far-reaching implications of internet activity to their children.
"A lot of the kids just don't think it's going to happen to them," she said. "A lot of kids now have two accounts — they have their family account and they have their friends account … You might have all the parameters set for one, but your kid might have another account you don't know about."
Bartow County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Megan Kincer advised parents to not sugarcoat the possibly dire consequences of their children's online behavior.
"I'm brutally honest with my 10-year-old son. He can probably tell you more about child exploitation than a lot of people I work with," she said. "My theory is he's not going to grow up and say 'My mom didn't tell me' or 'I didn't know,' so I'm very honest … I think you've got to be open with the kids."
Green said she agreed.
"It may be bad parenting advice, but I think scare the crap out of them," she said. "If you're going to talk to them about sex and drugs and alcohol, you've also got to throw in there internet safety and the dangers of social media, because these kids are growing up attached to this, every second of the day."