CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) – We have a warning from the head of the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children task force, Ohio ICAC, as kids head back to school.
19 Investigates found a surge in cyber tips for online sexual predators since the pandemic began.
And now child advocates worry another challenge is on the way from social media platforms.
There has been a backlash from law enforcement and attorneys after Facebook, which owns Instagram, announced plans it is creating a platform for children under 13 years old that will allow them to have their own Instagram accounts.
Dave Frattare is the statewide commander of Ohio ICAC.
“Parents need to be aware of what these apps can do, what these social networking sites are capable of. They need to get more involved in their child’s lives,” Frattare said.
Predators take advantage of children online more than you may think.
“We just indicted a case where he was posing as a kid. And he was asking for photos of these children, first as faces and then it escalated,” said Fallon Radigan, supervisor of Ohio ICAC and lead prosecutor at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.
Recently, prosecutors said a Mayfield Middle School teacher and high school girls track coach used fake usernames on several social media sites to engage in sexually explicit chats with teens.
No known contact was ever made, but investigators said there were eight victims, ranging from 14 to 17 years old.
35-year-old Daniel Carlson faces more than 20 charges, including tampering with evidence.
Ohio ICAC said cyber tips of child exploitation escalated during the pandemic.
“That created a perfect storm in terms of children and offenders being in close proximity on the internet,” Frattare said.
Ohio ICAC has seen a dramatic increase in cyber tips coming in from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children over the last year and a half.
These tips come from a variety of social media platforms and online websites.
“They’re absolutely overwhelming. We do our best to triage the most severe cases first, but we have a lot of cases we have to put lower on the spectrum before we can get to them, and that takes a toll on the investigators, it takes a toll on the analysts that are working these cases,” Frattare said.
Frattare said Ohio is consistently in the top five states nationwide in terms of the number of cyber tips they’re getting.
19 Investigates found before the pandemic, Ohio ICAC was getting 700 to 800 cyber tips a month.
That jumped to 1,200 to 1,400 cyber tips a month during lockdown in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, Frattare said numbers have stayed steady, at around 1,000 a month.
10,321 cyber tips came into the Ohio ICAC in 2020, setting a record.
They’re getting more cyber tips now than last year at this time.
The task force said it has gotten 7,041 cyber tips statewide through August 17, compared to 6,618 in mid-August of 2020.
“Everything the children are using, the offenders are using. The offenders know where the children are hanging out. They know that TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram are probably the big four right now,” Frattare said.
“Some of these predators are coming back. We have had recent cases where they have traveled to meet a child, thankfully it’s someone in our task force that they’re meeting,” Radigan said.
Instagram for Kids
Prosecutors worry they’ll see cases like this more often if plans for Instagram for kids continue.
Facebook points out many children are already using social media, listing fake ages.
They said accounts would be controlled by a parent or guardian and have safety measures in place.
This includes automatically setting accounts for those under 16 to private.
Facebook told 19 Investigates the company reports content and accounts.
In response to NCMEC’s 2020 CyberTips report, a Facebook company spokesperson sent us this statement:
“The size and expertise of our team, together with our sophisticated technology, have made us industry leaders in detecting, removing and reporting these images, and thwarting people from sharing them. We will continue to develop the best solutions to keep more children safe.”
Opponents worry safeguards won’t be enough.
“They talk to individuals on the internet that they do not know. They could be your friend, they could be posing as your friend. And you give them your location, you give them photographs of your home, your bedroom and this is what predators look for,” Radigan said.
“I think the best way to keep children safe online is to keep them off social media altogether. (12) We’re seeing enough problems with the 13 to 18 year old segment, to me introducing social media apps for kids under the age of 12 is very risky behavior,” Fratare said.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has called on Facebook to stop the launch of Instagram for kids due to the risk of child predators.
He and 43 other state attorneys general wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg back in May.
In response to the letter, Facebook tells 19 Investigates:
“As every parent knows, kids are already online. We want to improve this situation by delivering experiences that give parents visibility and control over what their kids are doing. We are developing these experiences in consultation with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates. We also look forward to working with legislators and regulators, including the nation’s attorneys general. In addition, we commit to not showing ads in any Instagram experience we develop for people under the age of 13.” – Facebook spokesperson
Facebook said it is still in the early stages of developing an Instagram experience for children under 13, and they “do not have specifics to share on timeline or safety features.”
But you can read more about the recent safety updates they made for teens 13 and up on Instagram here and here.
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