‘Use parental controls’
Director of the PRPB’s cybercrimes division shares advice with parents on their children’s use of the internet & personal devices
By Richard Gutiérrez
The internet, along with its offspring the World Wide Web, is a very handy tool for searching for valuable information, paying bills and making purchases online, or for entertainment purposes.
However, in the same way that a spider uses its web to catch prey, pedophiles and child traffickers use the internet as a web of their own to lure and catch their prey. Just two weeks ago, two teenage girls from Arroyo who had gone missing were slain, while their parents had no idea what they were doing or where they had gone. The heinous killings were so devastating that New Progressive Party Rep. José “Quiquito” Meléndez Ortiz called upon all parents and legal guardians to monitor with great attention to detail the interactions their children have on social media, specifically applications such as TikTok and Snapchat.
Considering the increasingly urgent discourse surrounding the dangers of social media, Lt. Luis F. Maldonado Miranda, director of the Cybernetic Crimes Division of the Puerto Rico Police Bureau, spoke with the STAR about the possible dangers posed by the internet for children and teenagers.
“We always recommend to parents to have control of their children’s electronic devices,” Maldonado Miranda told the STAR. “Parents should have control of not just the device per se, but also all of the information that their children absorb in their electronic devices; we have to be aware and recapture the subject of parental controls.”
Maldonado Miranda also pointed out that phones and social media are not the only platforms that parents should be aware of -- online video games can also be a doorway for unethical, illicit, or even high-risk interactions without parents’ knowledge.
“Just like on social media, children and teenagers can interact with people from all over the world while playing games online -- people who you have no idea who they are or what their intentions are,” Maldonado Miranda said.
He also went into detail about parental control apps and called on parents to investigate them with care.
“Most phone operating systems provide the ability to download Google Family Link, which is a parental controls app for mobile devices; game consoles also provide parental controls on the console from the get-go,” the law enforcement officer said. “As parents we must dedicate time to properly reading instruction manuals and understanding how these things work; a lot of the time these are very user friendly, but we have to dedicate time to do this. It is important.”
Maldonado Miranda also believes that more than just online interaction, the entertainment and content that children consume on the internet can also be dangerous.
“When I talk about the content they access on the internet, I’m talking about anything that is recommendable in terms of their age,” he said. “It’s good to follow the recommendations of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, making sure the young ones don’t have access to violent or explicit content, because if their mind is not ready for those subjects, if we allow our children to watch stuff that they don’t understand, we can begin to see much more violent conduct in children and teenagers, more aggression and compulsion.”
Many times parents let their kids use a cellphone just so they don’t bother them,” Maldonado Miranda added. “Without being monitored, these children are being raised looking at content that is not necessarily positive or constructive.”
Regarding adult predators and traffickers of children, the officer also spoke about some of the grooming tactics such criminals tend to lean on. Attracting children with what they like is their number one tactic, he said, which is why paying close attention to online video games and who children are talking to online -- and what they are talking about -- is highly recommended.
“Conversations in their text boxes might seem normal at first, but there is a possibility for conversations to turn dark over time,” Maldonado Miranda said. “Once they’ve gained the child’s trust, they can expose them to sexual and explicit content and, [as a way of] normalizing sexual [conduct], they may say things such as, ‘It’s ok for you to be naked in the house whenever you want,’ or ‘this is totally normal,’ as they send them a pornographic video. These things happen right under the parent’s nose.”
The PRPB officer cautioned: “Don’t post pictures of your kids in school uniforms on social media; people who dedicate themselves to hunting down children will look for these details to track them down.”
Regarding how to identify a possible child predator, Maldonado Miranda believes “children who don’t want to show their parents the apps on their phone, if they come home with things parents haven’t bought for them, if they want to be by themselves in their room too long, all of these are potential signs of a possible predator interacting with the child.”
What may come as a surprise to some is that even in the year 2023, many parents are not aware of how easily their kids can hide material from them on their phones.
“We’ve given seminars to parents, showing them application icons that are used for hiding pictures on a cellphone, yet some of them said they’ve seen it but had no idea what it was until we told them,” Maldonado Miranda said.
Negligence is significantly more dangerous than the actual devices, he pointed out.
“The year 2020 was a year when everyone just got stuck home, connected to the internet thanks to the global pandemic,” the officer said. “Our office handled 24 cases of child pornography and 35 cases of seduction of a minor. “That’s just our office, that’s not counting all the cases the FBI took care of in that year.”
In 2021 the results weren’t much different, with 22 cases of child pornography and 25 cases of child seduction. The year 2022 had 18 cases of child pornography, and 17 cases of child seduction, and so far in 2023 there have been seven cases of child pornography and four child seduction cases, Maldonado Miranda said.
“It’s important to note that just because there has been a reduction in these cases, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening,” the cybercrime specialist said. “The problem is that there is a lot of negligence by a lot of parents. Parents are not scrutinizing or monitoring their child’s phone or devices as much as they probably should. When parents start to realize the things that are happening, the more cases can be reported and worked on by our offices, so it’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing if the scale is up or down; it can mean parents are waking up and we’re bringing these people to justice, and it can also mean things are happening under the parent’s noses.”