With the start of the new school year, Courtney Chase, the executive director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Child and Youth Protection and Safe Environment, is urging parents to familiarize themselves with their children’s social media activities and to monitor it carefully.

“Social media is one of the biggest threats to children,” she said. “This is the new way for kids to bully other kids and a new way for predators to get access to kids.”

Chase said that most recently predators have been using gaming systems – such as X-Box and PlayStation – to contact young people.  She said that predators will entice a child with game credits, e-cash and other “high value temptations.”

“We want parents to be educated and aware that predators are now infiltrating once-safe devices,” she said. “The struggle is to get students to understand that predators camouflage themselves as students. They study and learn the environment that students inhabit and pretend to be a student, maybe from another school.”

Chase said that predators will “groom, coerce and intimidate (young people). And these crimes do not discriminate” based on race or gender.

She said that sometimes when a young person has been tricked or coerced into sending or sharing sexually inappropriate images, the predator will then blackmail or threaten the youth with exposure unless the interaction continues.

“Many times a child is afraid to come forward because they feel their parents will take away their phones or their computers,” Chase said. “The key for parents is to have information and open lines of communication.”

Her suggestion for parents is “keep vigilant and keep on communicating this (warning) to your kids. You cannot exhaust this topic.”

In addition to sexual exploitation, Chase said that social media are also employed by some students to bully others. “Bullying on social media causes damage you cannot image,” she said.

“Parents think that the schools and principals can control this, but the answer lies in the home,” she said. “Parents cannot just rely on them (schools) – they must work with the school to regulate and monitor their child’s social media use. Parents pay for the phone and they pay for Internet access, so they can control their kids’ access.”

Chase offered the following tips for parents to help keep their children while using social media:

• Parents should not be afraid to ask their children questions. “Discussion and planning are open and active parts of keeping children safe,” Chase said.

• Parents should have the passcodes for all their child’s electronic devices – phones, tablets and computers.

• Parents should actively monitor each of their child’s social media accounts.

• Keep families safe by not including identities or locations on pictures posted online.

• “Be careful about posting pictures with a (child wearing a) school uniform,” Chase said. “The uniforms can be identified and traced and can lead to stalking.” She added that some hackers “also can put a child’s face on sexually inappropriate images.”

• Because some homework assignments may require Internet research, “there should be a central place where a child works so that parents can monitor Internet activity.”

• Parents should make sure they know the name of every person to whom a child sends a text. Children should not be texting to numbers the parents do not recognize or know.

• Monitor the frequency of texting to a particular number. The amount of texts – and the time of those texts – could be a red flag. “It is imperative that kids never hide their phone from their parents,” Chase said.

• All electronics should be stored overnight in one designated place and parents should impose “an electronic curfew” on their child. Chase said this limits overnight, unsupervised texting and social media usage.

“Everybody uses social media and this is a way for them (predators) to prey on kids who desire to be included and feel socially connected. That is why parents need to regulate the social media content their kids are disseminating and viewing,” Chase said. “Parents must remember that because cell phones and other electronic devices are their property – they are the ones who bought them – they can and should set limits.”