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Parents, experts share ways to keep kids safe from online predators

Studies show parents are seeing a massive spike in kids' screen time during the pandemic — and the estimated report of cyber abuse against kids has gone up too.

INDIANAPOLIS — Studies show parents are seeing a massive spike in kids' screen time during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Now, with e-learning being used so often, many kids are spending several hours a day online to complete coursework. As many of us know, the internet can be a wonderful tool for education but also a scary and dangerous place for kids with potential predators lurking. 

In fact, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimated more than 4 million reports of cyber abuse against children in April of this year — four times greater than last year. 

Boone County Prosecutor Kent Eastwood wants to keep the community safe — it's a role he takes pride in. He's a parent of three boys ages 7, 9 and 11, all of whom are learning remotely at Eastwood. 

"[It's all about] having an understanding about their responsibility, and your responsibility as a parent, and making them understand that when they have those devices, that you also have the right and duty to look at what they're doing," Eastwood said. 

He allows his kids some freedom and doesn't stand over their shoulder but did install monitoring software. 

"We trust our children to do the right thing, but we also verify that they do it," Eastwood said. "We do it in a way where they don't feel like they're necessarily in trouble when we do do it."

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Chris Hadnagy, the founder of Innocent Lives Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting kids from online predators, echoes Eastwood's advice. 

Hadnagy compares it to teaching your teen to drive, where you wouldn't just hand them the keys; instead, you'd talk them through it. 

He advises you to do the same with devices, which is why he preaches to parents the acronym, TRUST.

Talk: Speak with your kids at an age-appropriate level.

Relationships: Have a relationship with your child, but understand the relationships your child may have online by asking the following questions: Who are their friends? Where are they meeting them?

"A lot of these things will sound just like a normal teenager, but what these signs should do to a parent is if you see any of these, you say, 'hey, I wonder if something's up? I'm going to start to look at their device or I'm gonna have a conversation with them. I'm gonna do both of those things,'" Hadnagy said.

Understanding: Let your child know you want to be a resource for them, and understand the world they're growing up in.

Stability: Kids need to see you as an emotionally stable resource, so keep your frustration under control.

Teach: Teach kids of the dangers lurking online.

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“Ask your child for instruction. For example, 'How do you direct message someone on Instagram?' I don't even know how to do that," Hadnagy said.

According to Hadnagy, your kids will most likely oblige and give you a tutorial for how it's done. He said, though, it's important for you to be transparent, like he was with his daughter, especially if you're installing monitoring software.

"I showed her the app I was going to use. I let her see me install it. I let her watch me put it on her phone. We did all of that together," Hadnagy said. "Is she happy about it? No. Does she still hate it? Yes, 100 percent, but it was important for me to do that in a way that she knew I wasn't sneaking, and I wasn't trying to covertly watch what she was doing."

He said kids deserve privacy, but if you noticed these combined signs, it may be time to talk. If you're noticing isolation, meaning your child only seems to have online friends and they're hiding them, check to see if they're also pulling away from their school or neighborhood friends. 

Hadnagy also advises parents to watch for any mysterious gifts your child might receive — especially if it's a device. 

Hadnagy said he has seen predators pop up on homework sites, teen dating sites and places where kids play video games online. 

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Boone County Prosecutor Kent Adams understands these are all unique challenges parents must face. 

“Obviously, there's some children who are at home right now working on schoolwork, and their parents are at work. The parents don’t have the ability to be there 24/7 over their shoulders, so that's why you've got to educate the children," Adams said.

Click here for more information, such as Hadnagy's recommendations as far as online monitoring devices. 

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