Bloomington Police Department detectives discussed the challenges and obstacles to keeping children safe from cybercrime and other online harassment during a presentation at Valley View Middle School May 31.

The presentation also highlighted the controlled substances that are currently the most common to find their way into the hands of children.

Detectives Kris Boomer and Erika Brown discussed several facets of online harassment and crime. Boomer, who has worked as a Police Department liaison at Kennedy High School and has investigated sexual assault and child abuse cases, discussed strategies for safeguarding children from criminal activity perpetrated through online programs.

Just about every connected platform provides an opportunity for criminal activity to reach the children using them, according to Boomer. From computers and cellphones to gaming consoles and tablets, they all have an ability for users to communicate back and forth, she said. For children who engage in online gaming, apps like Discord, which allows for discussions between users, are a periodic source of cases she investigates, she noted.

For detectives and parents, keeping tabs on the current trends in online communication is a constant challenge, as they continue to evolve, and children are often more adept at using trendy apps than adults are, Boomer explained.

As a parent of 18-year-old twins, the rule in her house was that she needed to have access to not only the devices her children use, but also passwords to the apps they use. Her concern was less about trust than it was safety. If something suspicious or criminal happened to one of her children, accessing information from a device would be critical, and without immediate access to apps and messages on a device, critical time would be lost, Boomer said.

Knowing what programs and apps children use is important in the event of an emergency, she noted.

Boomer also discussed the challenges of safeguarding children from online enticement and sexual-oriented content.

She stressed discussing online risks with children at every age. Explaining the danger of online interactions with young children and the ramifications of actions, such as sharing revealing photos or illegal activity online, with older children. In some cases, photos may be quickly shared and cause embarrassment. In other cases, such as photos of teens attending a party where alcohol is consumed, it may result in disciplinary action through their school, she said.

Issues involving sexually oriented contact occurs as early as middle school, she noted.

Brown, a Jefferson High School liaison, discussed cyberbullying, noting that 25% of middle and high school students have reported being a victim of cyberbullying, which includes mean text messages, spreading rumors and gossip, posting embarrassing pictures and making threatening or harassing comments.

Cyberbullying incidents spread fast, and may linger with a student. If a child stops using a cellphone or computer, becomes nervous when receiving an email or text message, becomes uneasy about going to school or appears to be withdrawing from family and friends, the child may be a victim of cyberbullying, according to Brown.

She recommended reaching out to the child, noting that victims often think adults will not treat the issue seriously.

Brown recommended that parents monitor online behaviors and intervene the same way they would regarding offline behavior. She also stressed the importance of children not being bystanders. Children should be encouraged to report cyberbullying to an adult and stand up for the victim, she explained.

Detective Heather Jensen handles narcotics cases in Bloomington. She said prescription pills are most commonly abused by youth, and not all pills are created equal. Oxycodone pills may not be what they appear, as some are fake and may contain other substances, she said.

Many resources pertaining to child victimization are available through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website, missingkids.org. The organization also maintains the CyberTipline for reporting online exploitation of children, Boomer noted.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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