Keeping your children safe online

In our increasingly electronic world, we have more and more access to just about anything you can think of â?? but that also means online predators have more ways to target children, which means parents need to know how to protect their own.

And unfortunately, sex crimes against children do, and always will, happen just about everywhere â?? including right here in Amarillo. In fact, late last month (Oct. 22), Randall County deputies arrested an Amarillo man for possession of child pornography, and the ensuing investigation yielded an additional charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child under the age of 14.

Over the last year, Amarillo police tell me theyâ??ve only seen 10 cases of online solicitation of a minor in which no other subsequent charges were filed â?? and of those cases only one actually stuck.

However, police can and do monitor solicitation to investigate and prevent more serious crimes.

â??Usually what happens is it starts out as something quite innocent â?? just an online contact, and it may be someone whoâ??s a friend of a friend through some kind of social networking, and they work their way into the childâ??s life,â?? explains Lieutenant Elizabeth Brown of the Crimes Against Persons department at APD. â??Then what they do is start a grooming process where theyâ??re telling the children, â??These are the kind of apps I want you to purchase; this is how I want you to communicate with me,â?? and itâ??s a method of secrecy and protection for the offender, and the parents just arenâ??t aware of whatâ??s going on.â??

And online solicitation isnâ??t limited to just home computers and social networking. As smartphones rise in popularity, so too do the apps that come along with them. And predators and other criminals are developing and utilizing phony apps to cover their tracks.

â??We had a recent case where we had an app that the predator told the child to purchase that actually had a disguised icon,â?? recalls Lt. Brown. â??It was something as benign as a weather app that when you look at it on the phone, it just looked like a weather app. But when you went into it, it was a third-party texting app that allowed the predator to communicate with the child without the parentsâ?? knowledge.â??

Some experts say parents should be able to remotely log on to their childâ??s mobile devices to monitor their activities. And while police donâ??t discourage that, they say the best way to protect your children really just boils down to proper parenting.

â??If you donâ??t make time to spend time with your kids, somebody else will, and that person may not have your childâ??s best interests at heart,â?? says Brown. â??You donâ??t have to be very tech-savvy and you donâ??t have to spend a lot of time. Just spend the same amount of time you would spend talking about any other issues that are important to your family: family values, what your child is doing, what information theyâ??re putting in their heads.â??

Late last month (Oct. 30) the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals struck down a 2005 state law that made sexually explicit communication between an adult and a minor a third-degree felony. The Courtâ??s position was that the law infringed upon free speech and that it was unnecessary, as other laws within the Texas penal code already prohibit online solicitation of a minor.