Colorado Springs police Sgt. Jason Ledbetter knows the dangers lurking every time a child logs in online.
Last year, his team with the Internet Crimes Against Children unit investigated a record 2,600 tips statewide involving predators trying to get minors to send them sexually explicit images of themselves or otherwise produced or shared child pornography. Those tips led to 44 arrests locally.
To drive down that number this year, he’s urging parents to have the same conversation he has with his children: “Do not talk to people online who you don’t know in person.”
The message came on Safer Internet Day, Feb. 5, but Ledbetter says internet safety is something that should be recognized early and often for youths of all ages.
“You wouldn’t give a teen who had never driven before the keys to a Ferrari and say good luck, so don’t give them a phone without discussing the dangers,” Ledbetter said.
Any website or application with a messaging feature can pose a risk.
In those forums, users often share a common interest, making conversation quick and easy. But there’s no knowing who is really typing on the other end, he said.
The conversation might start off innocent enough with a simple greeting or small talk to build the connection and make the child or teen feel safe, but it won’t take long before the person asks for something else: a photo.
“And the child will send it,” Ledbetter said, frustration evident in his voice.
From there, the images can be shared repeatedly online or used as blackmail to get more, he said. Predators might also ask to meet in person and try to abduct the child, he said.
The best way to protect yourself is to not send the photo, Ledbetter said, because once it’s sent, “You don’t know your photo’s fate, and you don’t have a choice anymore.”
The recent conviction of Dominic Slaven, 42, of Colorado Springs highlights how even one image can be duplicated and distributed hundreds of times online.
Slaven was flagged by Google last year for uploading 216 images of suspected child pornography to various websites between March and June, including a video of a prepubescent teen performing sex acts, his arrest affidavit says. Police later requested access to all 87 gigabytes of data kept on Slaven’s accounts and, in only the first seven gigabytes, found more than 100 images and videos of child pornography.
“Some of the images are repetitive,” depicting victims in photo and video form, the affidavit said. Slaven has since been convicted of sexual exploitation of a child and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The warnings are not meant to demonize technology, Ledbetter said, but rather teach youths how to use it safely and appropriately. He recommends parents talk to their children about which websites and applications they’re accessing, set ground rules for how the programs can be used and encourage them to report any users or conversations that turn inappropriate.
In his home, Ledbetter said he also has the passwords to all of his children’s devices and is allowed to look them over at any time.
“(Online connections) may say ‘I love you’ but there’s no real connection there,” Ledbetter said. “We’re missing real relationships in our culture since we’ve gone to technology.”
Contact the writer at 719-636-0362 or find her on Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin.