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Internet Task Forces Balance Tips, Tech Hurdles in Protecting Kids

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Monday, February 20, 2023   

South Dakota investigators say they're carrying heavy caseloads dealing with internet crimes against children. There's hope new research and pressure from Congress will lead to more tools to protect minors.

Last week, a U.S. Senate committee held a hearing involving social media companies, covering topics like cyber bullying and child exploitation.

The companies were criticized for putting profits before safety.

In South Dakota, Toby Russell - commander of the statewide Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force - said platforms, especially newer ones that come on the scene, can provide offenders new ways to target kids.

"We have seen a fairly significant increase," said Russell, "in online solicitation or enticement-type incidents and investigations."

Overall, he said there's been a nearly 200% increase in tips in the last five years. And a national study released last fall says one in six U.S. children have experienced at least one type of sexual abuse online.

Meanwhile, Russell said these task forces mostly run on federal grants, which aren't sustainable. There are calls for state lawmakers to provide additional funds.

Brent Gromer is a retired ICAC Task Force commander in South Dakota. He said he agrees more resources are needed, noting there's a vicious cycle of how tips are circulated.

Gromer said because of how they're processed through tech companies, there's often little information to go on.

"There's still some viable cases that are in there and there's children that are being abused that are sent through those tips," said Gromer. "It's just that law enforcement is bogged down working through some of these tips that aren't as good and still require the same amount of attention."

The growing caseload and concerns over children's mental health tied to social media platforms have spurred calls for adoption of the federal Kids Online Safety Act. Supporters say it would put in place much-needed safeguards.

Meanwhile, Russell said there are some ways for families to take action.

"Establishing that open line of communication as early as you possibly can with your children," said Russell, "starting when they're young and sort of an age-appropriate progression that parents can take with those conversations."

He also suggested that parents research apps that can help them monitor their child's online activity.



Disclosure: Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment contributes to our fund for reporting on Children's Issues, Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault, Education, Health Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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