Sheriff’s office hosts townhall on internet safety, social media use

GENESEE COUNTY — “The danger is not in the parking lot at the mall; it’s in your kid’s bedroom.”

That’s the message the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office conveyed to parents who participated in a virtual townhall held on Jan. 29. The topic: human trafficking and social media apps.

Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson, in tandem with the Voices for Children Advocacy Center, discussed how sexual predators use the internet to lure young children and teens into human trafficking and other dangerous situations.

Since its inception in 2018, the Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team (GHOST) has arrested over 90 sexual predators through sting arrests and reverse sting operations. Swanson said that several of those cases involved predators finding kids on social media apps and gaining their trust through “grooming.”

“The majority of these people we’ve arrested have no criminal history,” he said. “They don’t look like a ‘monster’ or a ‘predator.’ And that’s what they want you to think. They want you to let your guard down, to knock on the doors of your houses through the internet, through a phone, through an app.”

Deputy Victoria Dallas, an investigator with GHOST, said that predators often take advantage of live-chatting features on popular social media apps such as Facebook Messenger and Snapchat to interact with unsuspecting kids, who think that they’re communicating with someone their own age.

Instead, predators will use the online relationship to arrange a meeting with their intended target, or even coerce kids and teens into sending them nude photos or pictures of their private parts.

Claudnyse Holloman, Executive Director of Voices for Children, said that the latter case can lead to sextortion, in which the predator blackmails the child by threatening to send a compromising photo or video to their parents or post them on the internet for profit. Holloman said that parents should pay close attention to behavioral changes with their children to see if they might have become a victim of sextortion.

“It could be that your kid is spending more time in their room or the door is locked,” she said. “There’s a change in their physical demeanor or their grades are changing. They don’t know what to say and don’t know how to come to you.

“The key thing…is teaching your kids that even if they make a mistake, they’re not going to get in trouble,” Holloman added. “Be intentional about parenting and being a true friend to your children.”

Panel members said that parents need to have conversations with their children about internet safety and responsibility, while monitoring their kids’ social media activities and not allowing them to have their phones with them at night. They also recommended that parents should have just one Apple iTunes or Android account for the entire family, in order to keep track on what apps their children are downloading.

To see the complete online townhall presentation, visit the Genesee County Sheriff’s Facebook page.