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Keeping kids safe as digital danger evolves

Posted at 10:19 PM, Jul 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-19 23:19:40-04

Three out of four teenagers today have cell phones and access online, according to the Pew Research Center.

However, the smartphone that offers the convenience of keeping in touch also exposes children to a real danger lurking in the digital world - the kind parents never want their kids to discover.

Blythe Baker, 13, is like most teens. While mixing up cupcakes with her mother in the kitchen of their midtown Tulsa home, her phone is never out of her sight.

"I have Instagram, and Snapchat and I use Netflix a lot," said Blythe Baker.

Her parents' rules are very clear. They know her phone passcode, her social media accounts are linked to theirs, and she is not allowed to delete her search history.

"So if I ever look at her phone and see the history is gone, we might lose the phone for awhile," said Leigh Baker, Blythe's mother. Blythe quickly responded with a smile, "Big Trouble!"

Experts warn big trouble can lurk in social media apps installed on smartphones and devices. Jason Weis, the founder of the Demand Project, warns in 82-percent of the online sex crimes against children, the predator used social media sites to find their victim.

"They are on every single social media site - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. They are everywhere looking for children," Jason Weis added. "They are relentless."

Weis and his wife Kristin founded the non-profit organization, the Demand Project, to fight sex trafficking of children.

Weis knows the danger too well. In the seminars he offers to churches and community groups, he warns parents about apps such as KIK.

According to Weis, it is the number one app that sexual predators use to gain access and make contact with kids because it is one that is very popular with children and teens. He says KIK offers an internet within the app with the chatroom and video sharing. With 300 million KIK users, Weis says 70-percent are between the ages of 13 and 24.

"You see the icon on the phone but you have no idea when you open it up it's like a whole new world wide web," Weis said.

Parents often limit their child's phone to WiFi and no data plan but Weis says that does not protect children because a data plan is not required to use KIK. It simply requires WiFi.

WHISPER is another app law enforcement encounters frequently in their fight against sexual predators.

This app, which has more than 10 million users, is geographically based so the user's location is clearly marked for others to see.

Here's how it works: once a user posts something, other users with the notifications on, within a 1 mile, 5 mile, or 10-mile range, will see the post and can communicate with that person.

"People can respond to that actual message you posted or send you a direct message." Weis added, "Just knowing about the apps is only the first step. You have to know the capabilities of these phones."

Parents and school districts often use security settings in an effort to protect children and limit exposure. However, new virtual private networks, VPN, are free apps that bypass security settings. There are also apps with "vault" capabilities to store secret messages and videos.

One app makes headlines last year when it was revealed the icon of a calculator actually used codes to hide communications between users.

You won't find any secret apps on Blythe's phone - only Snapchat and Instagram - which are very popular with teenagers.

She and her parents told 2 Works for You anchor Karen Larsen they are well aware of a recent update in Snapchat that let others swipe the map to pinpoint the user's location.

"That really did alarm me and I asked her to try to find a way to turn that off," Leigh Baker said. "She found a way to get around it."

Blythe found she could program the app with "ghost mode" so that nobody knows where she is at any time. She also shared something interesting about her smartphone and shared it with us. She learned on YouTube that Apple sorts pictures and some of the categories may seem provocative.

In the photo album, type in a single letter in the search icon and the phone sorts entire categories of photos for you. Blythe found hundreds of pictures of she and her friends posted in the blue jean and bathing suit categories.  

"It was creepy that Apple can go through and take pictures that I have and sort them into different categories that I didn't even know they could have access to my photos," Blythe said.

Knowing the capabilities of a smartphone is just as important as knowing how apps are used and who can access them, Jason Weis said. He said parents must maintain a warrior mentality to protect their children from relentless criminals who want to steal a child's innocence.

He suggests sitting down as a family and having an open discussion about the risks and establishing family rules while reassuring the child they can turn to their parents at any time for help if they are contacted by someone they don't know or makes them uneasy.

The Baker family has talked about the dangers online before giving their daughter a phone and in the time she has been using it. Their goal is a simple one: keeping their teenage daughter safe and happy.

With wisdom beyond her years, Blythe summed it a simple warning for other teens to consider before using their phones and posting in social media, "The world is bigger than you think. The world is bigger than Tulsa, bigger than Oklahoma and there are people all of the way across the world that can see what you are doing."

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