Laura Atwood, Herald Bulletin
CHESTERFIELD — Double tap to like.
In a world of Snaps, tweets, DMs, Instagram and more social media apps being added every day, engaging an unknown follower or accepting a request from a stranger is as simple as the swipe of a finger.
While engaging strangers on social media could be as harmless as more followers or funny comments, for teenagers, it can be a dangerous path to take, FBI Special Agent Andrew Willmann said.
Willmann partnered with Indiana State Representative Terri Austin for a public presentation on internet safety for children Thursday night at Millcreek Community Center in Chesterfield. Online predators are Wllimann's specialty. He serves on the Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force at the FBI office in Indianapolis.
From child sexual extortion to kidnapping to coercion, Willmann has investigated notable cases. He was an agent on the Jared Fogle case in 2016. An agent with such a pedigree used a notable cartoon to display his point: South Park.
Eric Cartman, an eight-year-old, got online looking for friends. He posted in a chat room that he was an eight-year-old boy looking for good times with friends, and he was bombarded with messages in an instant.
"As silly and absurd as South Park is, they get it right," Willmann said. "This is a kid who is looking for friends and he was overcome with guys with bad intentions."
Sextortion, a mashup of sexual extortion, is coercion for sexual images. A perpetrator will often obtain a sexual image and then blackmail the sender for more, according to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
While sexual images sent between significant others may be innocuous, Willmann said sharing images happens among teens and that can lead to sextortion.
"This sounds sexist, but a guy might get photos of his girlfriend and shares them with his buddies. He's bragging, he's saying, 'Look what I got," Willmann said. "I'll show you if you show me."
Once someone with ill intent gets possession of the images, they have power, Willmann said. The perpetrator will threaten to share the images with parents, friends, teachers and the victim caves, because that's not a threat they want to tempt, he said.
"This can go on for years and years. The victim is stuck in this awful, sadistic relationship," Willmann said. "The offender will not stop until they are caught. They never stop."
Prey and predator
A typical offender will set up a fake social media profile of someone that would be on the periphery of a victim's life. They might steal an identity and pretend to be someone or they might meet through social apps for online friend-finding, Willmann said.
Predators are savvy hunters for susceptible teens, usually girls: those who feel they don't have a strong support system at home, who are lonely and don't feel they are getting the attention they need at home, Willmann said.
"They cast a wide net. They'll find one person and then target every single one in their friend group," he said. "Most people don't bite, but out of that wide berth, they'll get one or two to respond."
"They'll say, 'Your parents and your friends aren't taking care of you. I'll pick you up and we'll run away together," Willmann said. "You'll think it's a 19 year-old but it's a 40-year-old dude from Kentucky."
These cases sometimes end in child sex trafficking, or child prostitution. One out of seven children in sex trafficking are runaways, according to CMAP.
Having the talk
The first defense to sextortion is an open line of communication between children and parents. Parents need access to logins of all social media their kids use; they should require permission to download new apps and be involved in the teen's social life, said Willmann.
Many schools have a one-to-one policy with laptops and tablets, which allows for more access to predators. Willmann said parents should keep those devices in common spaces so children have supervision.
"This isn't like it used to be, that kids were safe after 9 p.m.," he said. "They have inside access to your home at all times."
Unfettered access to the internet is the easiest way for a predator to reach a child. Surfing social media in the bathroom, bedroom, even the laundry room unsupervised is a risk, Willman said. Parents need to have accounts on the apps their kids are using. Having an Instagram account, even if it goes mostly untouched, gives parents an insight to what's buzzing and what risks come with it.
Finding a balance between off-hands and hovering is crucial, Willmann said. Overbearing parenting could lead to deceit from the child.
"Current children are always going to be smarter than you, they will always know the tech more than you and they're faster and better," he said. "The second you swoop down on them, they'll make a fake Instagram. So there has to be a certain level of trust."
Understanding the stresses a child might experience can go a long way in keeping kids safe. Opening the door for discussion of sex, depression, anxiety, bullying and suicidal tendencies can show a child they have a safe place to go.
While parents have the perspective and hindsight of an adult, kids don't have that luxury. Willmann warned that approaching a subject like sending sexual images with a disciplinary hand could distance the child.
"Children and teens are going to be children and teens," he said. "They're going to make mistakes and we can't treat them like pariahs for it."
While Willmann is always willing to give presentations, he is rarely asked to speak. Willmann said when Austin invited him to speak, he jumped at the opportunity.
Internet safety, especially with the prevalence of computers in schools, is important to Austin, a former teacher.
"Schools can't do it all, but helping teachers and others be aware so that they can be on the lookout is important," Austin said. "A lot of these things take place right under our eyes and we don't even know it."
Willmann, a father of two, said that sometimes he stresses out about his children, their future and who might prey on them. He said parents keeping a connection with their teens is the best way to keep them safe, and allows them to feel important.
"As dorky as it is, as much as you don't care about it, ask about their video games. Offer to play a round. Be involved and show you're willing to be involved," he said. "Let your kids know that you notice them."