Tuesday’s talk will discuss current social media apps and hidden dangers, cyberbullying, sextortion and recognizing predator behaviors  also called “grooming”

Cookeville – Upper Cumberland youth use online tools, much like their peers nationwide, making connections with friends and strangers alike. Local and federal law enforcers will help Putnam County students and families navigate potential pitfalls with public presentations Tuesday Mar. 28 at Prescott South Middle School (PSMS).

Tuesday’s talk will discuss current social media apps and hidden dangers, cyberbullying, sextortion and recognizing predator behaviors also called “grooming.”

“It is 100% happening here,” said Lt. Heather Marshall of the Cookeville Police Department, of these online activities and crimes. “In 2022, Cookeville’s team on the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) opened 89 investigations ranging from online tips to “real” victims within the city limits.”

Lt. Marshall joined the task force in 2018 working in the CPD’s Criminal Investigation Division. One of her first experiences was having her image used as “bait” in online child exploitation communities. These online chat scenarios are one way to intercept potential predators, but their investigations commonly are in response to “real” situations.

In her experience, she has investigated cases involving child exploitation and abuse of infants, seen young children who produced their own explicit content and familial trafficking, which is a family member using a child to perform sexual acts to cover rent, for example. A spring 2022 survey conducted by The Pew Research Center, showed that 97% of youth use the internet daily, with the top four social media platforms being YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat.

Most American teens and 95% of those ages 13 to 17 have smartphones, in addition to their computers, laptops, tablets and gaming consoles, allowing frequent online activity and making kids more available to predators.

“People are connecting with the kids, and now they have access with the push of a button,” said Lt. Marshall. “So parents need to know how those connections are possible, know what apps and platforms your child uses, how those function, plus knowing the lingo kids use to decipher their online conversations. Most parents don’t know that Snapchat – one of the most widely used platforms – has a hidden camera roll on it.”

Having the information is one key, but Marshall said that having open communication with a trusted adult is imperative so for kids to come forward, even with embarrassment and shame when they need help to get out of these dangerous and potentially criminal situations.

“They (children) are more tech-savvy than their parents most of the time. By the time I’m talking to them they have no idea their child has uploaded an image of their genitals on YouTube,” said Lt. Marshall.

The PSMS Counseling Center will host grade-level conversations with students and Homeland Security agents using the agency’s IGuardian cybercrimes education tools Tuesday morning. Parents are invited to attend the 5:30 p.m. presentation at the PSMS auditorium. This community event is free; doors open at 5:15 p.m. This presentation is made possible by PSMS and LifeChurch Cookeville South.

Image by pvproductions on Freepik.

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