INDIANAPOLIS — Local, statewide and national leaders say internet crimes against children are a growing problem.
“In the big picture, this is a nationwide issue that no community is immune to,” Lawrence Police Chief Gary Woodruff said.
The Indiana Center for Prevention of Youth Abuse and Suicide reports that 1 in 5 children are solicited sexually while on the internet.
“Oftentimes parents think it can’t happen to my child and unfortunately we have found that that is not actually the case,” Lemmie Kahng-Sofer, Director of Case Management for the Mission Children Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said.
In 2021, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said nationwide there were more than 27,000 nationwide — 470 of them were from Indiana.
“We have definitely seen victimization of our children who have met people online and then have gone missing,” Kahng-Sofer said.
She said the online component is a growing problem. Reports to the center’s cyber tipline from 2020 to 2021 nearly grew by nine million.
“We’ve got almost every person from a very young age to older ages that are online and somebody who really wants to pray on a child, is very well aware of that,” Kahng-Sofer said.
It is an issue seen statewide and locally.
“Anything that can be used for good purposes can equally be used for nefarious purposes,” Woodruff said.
Lawrence Police has a person who specializes in cyber crimes against children.
“I can tell you that our detectives are indicating that this is happening more and more in Central Indiana, really across the country,” Woodruff said.
It takes a community, Woodruff said, to investigate these crimes. Cathie Bledsoe works as a youth educator with the Indiana State Police’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force — ICAC for short.
“In the six years I’ve been here, the victims have gotten younger and the type of things that they’ve been asking have become more egregious,” Bledsoe.
So far this year, Bledsoe says ISP’s ICAC has gotten more than 7,000 tips, which can range from cyberbullying to exploitation.
“We’re out here and more vocal about this, more people are reporting it, I’m hoping that’s what’s happening, we’re getting more reports, but I really can’t say it’s not just more cases,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe added it is not just strangers targeting children, oftentimes it is other kids or people your child knows.
“We need to broaden our idea of what our dangers are,” Bledsoe said.
The biggest takeaway from all three voices here: talk to your child about what’s going on online and if this does happen, report to law enforcement.
“If we can start teaching our kids to use this stuff properly, to think about the fact that they’re not alone online, we may cut down on the victims, but I can’t say that’s 100%,” Bledsoe said.
Previously WRTV spoke with Bledsoe on tips to keep your child safe online.
1) Parents need to take ownership of the device.
-“Software comes with the terms of service — nobody bothers to read that, but that Terms of Service is a legal and binding contract that our children can't agree to," Bledsoe said.
2) Give your child instructions on using the device before handing it over.
-"You don’t have to be a computer scientist to know how to use it. You can teach them how to block, you can teach them how to use privacy settings, you can teach them how to read the permissions before they download the app," Bledsoe said.
3) Talk to children about how they act/what they share online.
-"The internet stands for intercontinental network. In other words, the whole world. Once you do this in front of the whole world, if it's not something you would do for the whole world, you shouldn't do it on your device," Bledsoe said.
4) Follow age restrictions on social media apps.
-"If our kids played sports, we would have them trained, we would have the equipment to protect them, we would know who the coaches are the team that who best players when we had to bring snacks, but we put them on these devices. And we think oh, I don't have to worry about it. They're home. No, they're connected to the world, we need to worry a little bit more," Bledsoe said.
5) Get involved in your child's online life.
-“Predators do not want to attack a child that has that adult support because they’re a hard target. Make your child a hard target," Bledsoe said.
To reach the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline, click here.