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Do you know who your kids are talking to online?
Equipping kids to avoid online predators and dangers
Illustration by John Dinser,

Some websites with sample policies and information about youth, parenting and technology are below. - A tech father's review of SnapChat, Kik Messenger, Ask.FM, Vine, Instagram, ooVoo, Facebook, Twitter can be found here: - Blog from a mom with lots of helpful resources and thoughtful discussions - Though this site is written for parents in Ireland, has useful explainers of some apps and programs - from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

2013 Pew study on Teens, Social Media, and Privacy:


In many ways, the heartwrenching case of missing Conyers teen Savannah Gattis looks like a parent's worst fear come true.

At the outset, it seems that the 19-year-old Heritage High School student was lured away by an unknown male who promised a world of fashion modeling. He reportedly communicated to her through a phone her parents didn't know she had, which was given to her by a friend.

The case is still under investigation, but it's brought to light the fast-changing world of phone and app social media communication that parents may not be aware exists. And the dangers - online predators, human trafficking, sex trafficking - that teens may not realize can be just on the other side of that screen name.


A 2013 study published in the medical journal "Pediatrics" reported that out of 251 adolescent girls the study followed for a year, 30 percent reported meeting people offline.

In an informal survey of seven Rockdale high school students, three admitted to meeting someone that they met online. Others said they knew of people or had friends that had met people offline or had made fake profiles online.

One high schooler who gave the name Sade said she had met a guy that she initially thought was cool. "He was not what I expected. He was actually very, very weird," she said. Her parents had never warned her about the dangers of meeting strangers on the internet. She also admitted to taking on other identities and personas online. "Who doesn't?" she said.

Another teen, Angel, said she was terrified of the stories her mom told her and had never met anyone from online.

Another teen named Sarah said she had met up with a girl she had known for three years through an online forum about an author. For that meeting, her mother was very cautious and made sure the other girl's parents were present.

Sue Dowling, a forensic computer specialist formerly with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations helped develop the Georgia Cyber-Safety Initiative for schools. She pointed out in a previous interview that meeting up with a stranger from online was not a very common risk that kids face. "But it is one of the most dangerous," she said. Other online dangers, such as cyberbullying, are much more common.

"Most kids are not at risk for this," she said. "But there are those who will fall prey to that."

Debbie Garner, special agent in charge of the GBI's Internet Crimes Against Children Unit reminds parents that, "Most kids are using their phones and their social media appropriately."

"They're using it to do homework, texting their friends, bonding with their friends... But it's a monitoring thing."

Red flags

Specifically, some at-risk factors include students who happen to be in a vulnerable place emotionally or socially, who are generally willing to speak to strangers online, and who are risk takers in general.

Often, an online predator will start out befriending a child, using information revealed through the child's online profiles, especially if there's no privacy setting.

"They can almost become a soul mate to the child. They can portray themselves to being interested in the same things as the child," said Dowling. "They start working towards isolating them... trying to get them to confide in them, not in their family members."

Some might start sending gifts or even send a phone that they pay for that the parents might not know about.

Conversations can start in one venue and move to another venue, some that are more difficult to trace, such as Kik Messenger, SnapChat, Yik Yak and more.

"They're anonymous and they're easy to delete," said Rockdale County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Michael Cobb, a member of the GBI Internet Crimes Against Children task force. "A parent won't be able to see what their kids are up to."

While most of the time these apps are being appropriately, "Those are used commonly when we do have problems," said Garner. "They allow a lot of anonymity... They allow messaging within the app that parents may not be able to see."

What can parents do?

Garner steers away from giving hard and fast "should" and "should-nots" for parents, since everyone has a different parenting style and different children can handle different levels of responsibility.

"We have some parents saying my kid will never have a smartphone. Some parents never monitor their kids... We're not going to say what you should do at each age; parents know their own children and their level of responsibility."

"Our biggest push is for parents to educate themselves on what it is their child is doing," said Garner.

One piece of advice is for parents to know how to use whatever social media venue their child is using.
Some experts recommend parents have the passwords to their children's accounts and occasionally check the accounts.

"If you're going to allow your children to have a cell phone, be knowledgeable about what they can put on their phone," said Garner.

But with so many new apps and technological shortcuts, it's difficult for even the strictest parent to monitor everything, especially in this day and age.

"There are so many things kids can do to hide apps. It's almost impossible to 100 percent monitor everything their child does," said Garner.

Active parenting and ongoing discussion can help equip kids to make better decisions. Any discussion about internet safety should be integrated into everyday discussions, not separated as a specific discussion.

"I would have frank discussions (with your child) about sexting and sending photographs of (themelves). Even down to what (their) online personality is like - what you put online is what people will think of you." Potential recruiters, employers, and even schools will be see what the child says and leaves on the internet, which could impact scholarship and job offers.

Cobb agrees, saying two big takeaways to leave with kids are that "what you put on the internet is on the internet forever. There's no way to take back something... You send someone a picture yourself, the picture is never coming back."
And the other thing to remember is that, "You have no idea who you're talking to until you see them face to face. While you think you might be talking to boys or girls from school, there's an equal chance that they're not."

Dowling advises if the child does want to meet someone offline, make sure they don't meet them alone.

"I tell them, ‘Don't be flattered if someone wants to meet. If it's someone that's up and up, they're willing to meet you with someone you can trust.'"

She also recommended that parents use a technology policy or gaming or internet policy and establish rules around the use of technology.

"For example, at a certain point at night, we collect all the cell phones" in her household, she said. That helps avoid risky communication but also helps the child's sleep not to be interrupted during the night with text messages and emails.

But in the end, the best advice for parents may be the most simple advice - be actively involved in your child's life.

"Talk to them. Eat dinner with them. Spend time with them," said Long, in a previous interview. "That way, if they are ever faced with a difficult situation, whether it is online or not, hopefully they will talk with you about it. We can't expect them to come to us with a problem if we're not there for them every day."

Savannah Gattis

While the community is rallying for Savannah Gattis with prayer vigils at her church, Discover Point, and spreading the word about the missing 19-year-old, RCSO investigators continue to follow up leads in the case.

Cpt. Michael Camp said investigators want her to know, "She's not in trouble but we need to make sure she's OK, that she didn't go off with some random stranger on the internet."