Stories are peppered throughout the media—online, print and television—all sounding like episodes of "Law and Order - SVU" and all making stomachs turn. Adults are being arrested for carrying on online sexual relationships with children via digital chat rooms and apps which allow the youngest of children to reach out to complete strangers.
In April of 2018, a Glenwood City, Wis. social studies teacher, coach and city council member, faced five felonies including child sexual exploitation, exposing a child to harmful material, causing a child 13-18 to view sexual activity and using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime. The allegations against Peter L. Gaustad came after he met a 15-year-old Missouri girl in the app "Whisper." The girl told her mother that she sent nude photos to the 45-year-old teacher, though at first she refused to give him her name. She says Gaustad also sent her nude photos of himself. He admitted to speaking in sexually explicit ways on other platforms as well including "Motherless" and "Omegle." Gaustad was eventually sentenced to nine years in prison.
Gaustad's story is nothing new, and neither are online chat rooms. But as new generations of kids and their parents enter the digital landscape, digital safety experts are working overtime to figure out ways to decrease the number of children who fall victim to online predators.
Crime Prevention and Public Affairs Officer Jessica Schindeldecker of the Fargo Police Department has been at the forefront of law enforcement in the new media age. She helped launch the department's new app in 2014 and has helped direct police presence on social media. She's done extensive research on keeping children safe online and has put that information to use by conducting Digital Safety Sessions twice a year at JPII Schools, Fargo's Catholic School system.
"Most of the time it's not the students who are surprised by what I'm saying, it's their parents," Schindeldecker says.
Shanley high school principal Jonathan Spies agrees.
"Often times, students may be a more aware of new technologies and platforms before their parents," he says. "We wanted to provide opportunities for our families to hear and learn about the fast changing landscape of social media that their children are growing up in."
There are separate presentations for elementary parents and middle and high school parents.
"While we provide filtered internet access at school and at home through school owned devices, we want to help prepare students for an unfiltered online environment and help them make good, safe decisions now and after they graduate from our school network," Spies says.
While many chat rooms list warnings about online predators and say that they do not allow users under the age of 18 (or at least require parental permission from younger users) there are still very few safeguards to keep children away. Still other chat rooms have more lenient age requirements. So what advice does Schindeldecker and other online safety experts have for students and their parents?
Don't say anything in a chat room that you wouldn't want the public to know
This means do not share your full name, address, phone number or where you like to hang out.
"When you child is downloading a new app, make sure the location mode is turned off," Schindeldecker says.
Be careful in picking a screen name
Safekids.com recommends choosing a nickname that is not sexually suggestive or gives away anything to do with your real name. But Schindeldecker says it's not just sexually suggestive names that can get kids into trouble.
“They even look at screen names that might make them think the child is sad, depressed or lonely, then they can go in and ask 'why are you so sad?' They build a trust with them," she says.
Don't meet up
Don't get together with someone you meet in a chat room. If you must, at least meet in a public place and bring along a few friends.
Block and sign off
As soon as someone does something creepy or sexual, don't respond. Just block them and sign off.
But Schindeldecker says the problem is online predators can be savvy in how they communicate with children online. They know not to launch into sexual language right away. They might pretend to be younger than they are or at the very least be a sympathetic ear to the child with whom they're communicating.
“These predators groom our children looking to create relationships with them. It doesn’t happen quickly, it can take weeks or months, and eventually the child really feels like this person loves them, and they’ll do what that person asks," she says.
And in some cases, that will mean taking nude photos or running off to meet the predator.
Spies says the digital safety sessions at Shanley helped illustrate to parents how important it is to be involved in their child's online presence.
"This can be done by discussing what platforms they use and what they use them for," he says. "Parents were encouraged to use the same apps to help monitor their children’s use of social media."
You might not be interested in being on apps like Snapchat, but digital safety experts say 'so what?' Join anyway to keep an eye on what your children are doing. You don't need to hover or snoop, but keep a watchful eye on what they're doing.
“The number one tip I have for parents is don’t let your child download apps willy nilly," Schindeldecker says. "Have a password they need to use to get apps, that gives you the ability to look at what they’re downloading, do a little research and figure out if it’s appropriate for your child.”