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Predators use social media to find victims

8:01 PM, Jun 23, 2013   |    comments
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The death of Cherish Perrywinkle serves as a tragic, yet important, reminder for all parents.

It is undoubtedly important to keep your eye on your kids while you are out of the house, but it has also become increasingly important for parents to watch their kids' online presence as well.

The Internet is quickly becoming another place for sexual predators to prey on unsuspecting children.

Dr. Sharon Cooper from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill serves as a consultant for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

She is a leading expert in the United States on sexual exploitation of children online, with a particular focus on the role social media plays.

"Any social networking site is a risk," Cooper said. 

Dr. Cooper said parents typically have the best of intentions when they let their kids have social networking accounts.

Sometimes, she said, the parents even post information and pictures about their kids' daily lives.

"Children don't have any privacy anymore. They become an object almost as compared to the child you want to nurture and love and take care of," Cooper said. 

But the danger, she warned, lies in who else in cyberspace could be watching.

"It only takes one person to forward or bring someone else to your site as a their friend," she said.

Dr. Cooper explained sexual predators monitor social networking sites for weeks, even months.

Predators will take on the identity similar to the child they are attempting groom. The process involves imitating language, habits, social jargon and activities before initiating contact, according to Cooper. 

"When that happens, kids can very much be at risk, be groomed, to accept that encounter as with a peer, when in fact they may very well be talking to an adult," Dr. Cooper said.

Research in this area shows interactions between a sexual predator and child can be ongoing for up to six months.

Dr. Cooper said that is around the time the predator will attempt to lure the child away from the safety of their home.

The key, though, is not letting it get to that point, Dr. Cooper said.

"I think parents fail to recognize that when you start when a child is an infant, this is an engrained parental behavior, and that is something a parent needs to examine themselves about," she said.

So, as hard as it might be not to make a Facebook page for your new child or post pictures about your children, Dr. Cooper said that is the best way to prevent unwanted contact.

She also recommended avoiding any social networking site you don't fully understand.

She said you should contact the site directly with any questions or concerns and read its privacy policy thoroughly.

First Coast News

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