State sees increased reports of crimes against children during the pandemic

Children are exposed to many hidden dangers from extra screen time

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Technology has allowed us to keep up with our jobs and schooling when the pandemic shut down much of our world, but the long-term impacts of transforming into a society so reliant on our devices are still being uncovered.

While the Carousel Center in Wilmington expected to see fewer cases coming in, leaders with the advocacy center say its been a steady stream since the pandemic began. They’re seeing fewer cases of sexual abuse, but more reports of physical abuse in children.

Executive director Amy Feath says the cases they’re handling since the pandemic started have been more severe.

“If a child’s arm is broken because of an abuse incident, you have to seek treatment, you cant just let a child be screaming in pain, you have to go to the emergency department. So, what we’ve seen during the pandemic are there are far more reports from emergency departments and law enforcement and they’re getting more firsthand reports because they’re more severe and people have no choice but to seek medical intervention,” said Feath.

The state as a whole is also seeing an increase in tips about crimes against children. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation announced this fall they’ve seen an unprecedented number of tips children could be in danger of sexual exploitation.

Federal law requires internet service providers and social media applications to report communications indicating a minor may be in danger of sexual exploitation. Those reports are made to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where analysts determine where it happened. From there, they generate investigative leads called Cybertips and send them to law enforcement agencies with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. In North Carolina, those Cybertips are investigated by the SBI and local law enforcement agencies.

In 2019, they received 4,892, a record number of Cybertips. By September 30, 2020, the SBI had received 6,203 tips since January 1, 2020. Halfway through 2020, they had come close to surpassing their 2019 tip numbers.

The executive director of the Carousel Center in Wilmington agrees there’s more opportunity than ever for online predators to get access to children. According to the Carousel Center, investigators now routinely check computers and phones for evidence in nearly all of their cases.

“Where that might’ve been something a detective would’ve been looking at prior only if there was something disclosed, now it’s a matter of routine, proper criminal investigation for them—to seize the computer and the phone," said Feath.

Feath, though, adds that the larger volume of reports coming in also tells another more encouraging story.

“Is it that it’s happening more or is it that we’ve created a better education, an intervention system and communities that will allow for those who have experienced something really kind of hinky in the CyberWorld—that they have an avenue and are aware of what that avenue is to report it?” said Feath.

Tips and Resources for Parents

- Sit down and talk to your child if you notice any sudden changes in behavior (being less shy, rambunctious, disobeying rules), using language suddenly that seems too mature for their age, or seeing them show up with money, cards, or gifts or items from a new friend.

-Designate an area out in the open for your child to use their devices where they can be supervised by an adult rather than using their phone or computer in their bedroom behind closed doors.

-Teach children, especially younger children, not to click on any links or attachments without checking with a parent first.

-Decide what hours of the day your child can be online. At night the family can decide to put their phones in a basket, or you can turn your wifi off at a certain time.

-Put parental controls on all of your child’s devices and check back regularly to ensure they’re still in place.

-Check privacy settings on kids' devices and apps (this includes location tracking, camera and microphone settings. Child Rescue Coalition has some helpful tips. Zoom also created a blog on how to keep unwanted guests out of Zoom events.

-Know what apps the school is requiring that your children use and monitor devices for new installations. Require parental consent to download apps onto devices of children

-Model good behavior. Try to limit your own screen time, talk about the positive things you saw online, things you learned or are careful about, if you saw something that worried you and how you handled it.

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