Law enforcement: Monitor kids’ online, cellphone activity

It is more common today for teenagers to have cellphones than it was 20 years ago. However, local law enforcement officials believe it’s important for parents to talk with their children about and monitor their online usage. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

MECOSTA, OSCEOLA COUNTIES — A notification from the latest messaging app dings and many teenagers with cellphones quickly take a look.

However, for many parents whose children have cellphones, they have no idea who sent the message or who the person is or where they live.

While the dangers of online predators are often discussed or highlighted through public service announcements, incidents of online predators can be found across the state and country. The latest local case is of a 20-year-old Wisconsin man traveling to the area to meet with a 13-year-old girl.

Online predators can use Twitter and other social media sites to reach out to children of all ages. (Pioneer photo/Brandon Fountain)

He was arrested and charged with two felonies — accosting a minor for immoral purposes and using a computer to commit a crime.

It’s a situation which reminds Osceola County Undersheriff Justin Halladay of a case the department investigated in September.

“A 13-year-old girl was talking to an individual who was 27,” he said. “She ended up getting into a relationship with him online. He came up and picked her up and took her back to his residence in Lansing.”

Besides having an illegal relationship, Halladay said the teenager was basically held prisoner as a sex slave until she was found.

“Thankfully, we were able to find that girl and bring her home,” he said.

While there aren’t many instances of such predatory behavior reported to the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, Halladay said it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

“When you’re talking with someone online, you never know who you’re talking to,” he said. “There are predators online and they go to these sites and are hunting.

“It probably happens more than we know, as many of these situations go unreported or it’s not reported until it’s something down the road. We have seen it, and it has happened more than I like. Once is too many.”

With it being more common for teenagers having cellphones, Big Rapids Department of Public Safety Director Jim Eddinger said they have 24/7 access to the internet which isn’t always a good thing,

“That’s why it’s important for parents to monitor what their kids are doing,” he said. “Many of these cases you see are older teenage kids, who are just naive at the true dangers of the internet.

“I encourage parents to have that tough discussion with their child to reduce the likelihood of the child becoming a victim. These are tough conversations to have. The alternative, though, is calling the police because they’ve been victimized.”

Eddinger said it’s important for parents to stress to their children not to give out personal information, address or whether someone is home or not.

“It’s important for parents to get a sense of what the (other person’s) motive is,” he said. “There’s no reason in the world a 35-year-old man should have interaction with someone whose 12. That should be a red flag to parents.”

While many believe they will never become a victim of an online predator, Eddinger is quick to point out it can happen anywhere.

“There’s that mentality of, ‘We’re in Big Rapids where nothing bad happens,'” he said. “But, all you have to do is watch the news and see a city you never heard of where something bad happens.”

Halladay pointed out it’s important for parents to start the conversation with their children and to ask the questions, and to even talk to these individuals with whom they are talking to.

“Just because someone says they are a certain age or have something in common with you, it doesn’t mean it’s true,” he said. “It’s up to the parents to be aware.”

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Posted by Brandon Fountain

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