Predators trying to connect with young teens using online platforms. How to protect your kids

PITTSBURGH — If you think your child is safe at home, think again.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, 500,000 predators are scrolling through social media platforms, gaming apps and chat rooms, trying to connect with kids. Their targets? Mostly age 15 and younger.

A local researcher is sounding the alarm after she stumbled into a rabbit hole of websites seemingly in place to groom young kids and found the protections that were supposed to be in place---weren’t working.

Lara Putnam is a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and also studies the flow of digital information for Pitt’s Disinformation Lab.

The mother of four never imagined what she’d find while searching neighborhood political groups. Putnam was looking for Facebook groups linked to Pittsburgh’s 11th, 12th and 13th wards.

What she found was a whole series of social media groups that were surfaced by the algorithm that had the titles in Spanish, “Buscando Novi de 11, 12, 13 Anos.” Translated, that means, “I’m looking for a girlfriend who is 11,12, or 13 years old.”

“I was shocked and appalled,” said Putnam. “I instantly used Facebook’s online reporting tools to report these, and within 24 hours got back the answer. No problem has been discovered with this group.”

To make matters worse, the algorithm began to go into overdrive- recommending similar groups and pages from around the world for Putnam to like and follow. Many were sexually explicit.

“Children were asked to submit pictures of themselves. To judge pictures of male genitalia. This was all going on in an openly public Facebook group. It had tens of thousands of members,” Putnam said.

The easy access to these sites does not surprise Alicia Kozakiewicz, who now goes by the name Alicia Kozak.

Twenty-two years ago, at age 13, Kozak was groomed online and lured from her Pittsburgh home. Kozak has made it her life’s mission to speak out about child predators lurking online.

“Any application where there are communication abilities is a place where predators can groom,” said Kozak. “They are going to be where kids feel safe and where kids congregate.”

And, the predator problem is growing. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of adults enticing children online doubled to 38,000 during the pandemic.

Kozak tells kids to do a gut check. If an online chat doesn’t feel right- involve your parents or a trusted adult.

“I made a big mistake and it almost cost me my life,” said Kozak.

Experts advise parents to set digital boundaries. Tell your kids you’ll be spot-checking their devices. Apple devices allow parents to turn on alerts that warn minors before they send or receive nude photos.

As for Lara Putnam, after months of unsuccessfully trying to get the social media sites completely taken down, she did notice fewer explicit sites online.

“This is a public health emergency, said Putnam. How did these groups exist and there’s not action being taken?”

In fact, there are half a dozen bills before Congress right now all aimed at requiring social media companies to do more to protect kids from child sexual abuse and other harm, but so far, no legislation has been passed.

Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled the CEOs of five top social media companies--including Facebook’s parent company---about their plans to keep kids safe.

Putnam wrote about her experience in Wired magazine and published an additional article recently in Tech Policy Press.

In a statement to Wired, Facebook’s parent company wrote “We do not tolerate child exploitation including child sexual abuse material on our platforms…We encourage anyone to report it using our in-app reporting tools.”

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