INDIANAPOLIS — Health experts used to tell parents to make sure their kids get outside and away from screens, but now in a pandemic, kids are at home online. It’s creating an opening for predators and bullies.
“Whether it’s apps like TikTok, or even Instagram, Facebook, video games where you can interact with a person you have physically not ever met,” explains Boone County Prosecutor Kent Eastwood, a father of three young boys, “I really wonder how many parents maybe would actually sit there and watch their children be online. There are times I don’t really pay attention to what they are looking at. What they are watching. I will randomly take my children’s devices and see what apps they have downloaded.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children saw four times the number of cyber abuse reports in April compared to last year. There were over 4.1 million such reports this year as children continue learning virtually and spending their free time in front of a monitor. Predators can groom children they meet online.
“Over time they build trust with you, and as the trust gets built, the predators will ask you to do more things. They will have you test your parents,” explains Eastwood.
“For kids, they are looking to connect with somebody. They are looking to connect with people. The social isolation has been difficult,” explains Dr. Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, a pediatric doctor with Riley Children’s Hospital, “As a parent, sometimes you have to do the asking. You can’t just say, ‘How’s it going? Okay, bye.’”
The increase of virtual education and online recreation also opens the door for classmates who can bully behind their keyboards. Child experts say the isolation of the pandemic can further reduce self-esteem, or their ability to rebound from a bullying incident.
“When you could go out the next day, and play baseball, and hit the home run, and fill your good sense back again, you can’t do that now,” explains Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber, “Those things that you used to use to empower you, to make you feel better, that small group when they saw you at lunch would say, ‘Gosh, what’s going on?’ We know that bullying can lead to suicide. We know that bullying can lead to depression and irritability.”