Keeping kids safe from sexual predators

New local case sparks conversation about messaging, in-person dangers

ROANOKE, Va. – After recent local case of a former high school girls basketball coach being charged with child sex crimes -- one dealing with an incident in-person and another taking place electronically -- discussions about keeping children safe from predators are reopening.

One person commented on the 10 News Facebook page, “That's why we teach our children and grandchildren about sex predators. It may be hard to talk about. But it's a must.”

10 News spoke to Nancy Hans, the executive director of the Prevention Council of Roanoke County, about what parents should know.

Hans said that when it comes to devices and messaging, parents need to know what their kids are doing.

“We have to understand that not every kid is ready for a smartphone at 13,” she said.

The council doesn't recommend a smartphone for any kids under age 13. It suggests a basic phone for safety if necessary.

For kids that are active online or have messaging capabilities, Hans believes parents need to set firm stipulations.

“You can sit down and actually write a contract together so that all of you know what the rules are, what the boundaries are,” Hans said.

She believes parents are responsible for checking devices like phones and tablets to see what their children are doing and to whom their talking. That can be difficult with new apps coming out designed to go undetected.

“You have to know that there are apps that can be hidden behind another app. It may look like a calculator. It may look like a little lock box,” Hans said.

When it comes to monitoring, parents can look through their child’s activity on a device, but they can also install parental controls. There are many new apps designed to help parents do this. Some, like Bark -- which Hans recommends -- allows parents to get a notification if it detects something dangerous in a post or message.

Another option for monitoring is to not let children have these devices in their rooms when they're alone, particularly at night before they go to bed. Hans said parents shouldn't let their kids use phones as a morning alarm.

Hans recommends that up until about age 13, parents should have the passwords of all their kid's accounts.

She believes there are varying degrees of freedom appropriate for each circumstance for a family.

“As they grow, you give them more freedom. However, once something happens, that freedom box can get very small,” Hans said.

Another aspect of parents working to keep their kids safe involves having conversations with them that can be difficult.

Hans believes that it’s good for parents to explain to their children what adults can and can’t do to them and what adults can and can’t ask of them. Conversations like these, even ones that may seem obvious, can give children the confidence to resist and encourage them to go to another adult figure if an incident does occur.

Hans said that local school systems cover much of this in their curriculum, and parents should both be aware of what’s being taught and bring up the topic with their kids to reinforce the ideas -- and not just once.

“One of the biggest things that I think we can do better is listening,” Hans said. “We can't think that one time we tell a child or a preteen or a teenager, 'This is what you should do,' or, 'Don't do that' -- it has to be repetitious.”

The council recommends that families help their children have positive adult influences, pointing to research that shows that having three to five adult “anchors” can be beneficial, particularly to help kids get through high school and college. One of them could be a counselor at school, for example.

Hans said the council recommends its website as a resource for parents as well as commonsensemedia.org.

About the Author: