TAMPA — The disappearance of a Valrico girl after she exchanged 2,000 text messages with a twice-convicted sex offender has many parents concerned about their children's interactions on cellphones and social media.
Ashley Lyon, 16, exchanged messages, videos and photos with 41-year-old Steven Patrick Myers before she was reported missing on June 13. She was recovered by authorities in Louisiana after car chase late Wednesday night and is recovering from multiple stab wounds. An alert cashier at a roadside truck stop near Baton Rouge, La., spotted Lyon and Myers and notified police.
Some parents or caregivers might wonder if there are measures that could be taken to prevent sexual predators from communicating with their children. Others might think it could never happen to them.
"This is happening all the time," said Parry Aftab, an internationally recognized expert on cybercrime, Internet privacy and cyber-abuse issues. "Online sexual predators are real, but we sometimes forget to talk about them to our children."
While there is a fine line between monitoring and stifling, local and national experts say parents can keep an eye on their children's social lives while still allowing them space to grow. Ultimately, officials said, it comes down to communicating and setting boundaries.
"Too often, we see the parents who feel they need to step back from their children and allow their children this extraordinary amount of freedom," said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Benjamin Kenney. "That's a very dangerous position to hold."
Because digital communication and social networking are so commonplace, Aftab said there is no longer a fear of talking to strangers. It has become the norm for children and teens to check in at a shopping mall and post photos of themselves and their friends, intentionally revealing personal information.
It's not enough for parents to know who their children interact with in real life, Kenney said, but also on their phones, tablets and computers. While Kenney acknowledged no parent can know what their child is doing 100 percent of the time, especially online, there are steps adults can take.
"No child should have any social media account that their parents cannot access at their will," Kenney said. "Be strict about those things. All of these things are privileges for children."
Kenney suggested having the log-in information to all social media accounts and monitoring a child's cellphone bill for suspicious activity. Keep an eye out for repeated interactions with unknown phone numbers or with numbers that are from a different county or state.
Aftab, who is based in New Jersey, also recommends taking your child's phone away at night.
"A lot of late-night communication is usually not good," Aftab said. "And if your child argues that they need to use their phone as an alarm clock, then go down to CVS and buy them a clock."
There are several online protection products to help parents keep their children safe, such as MetLife Defender. The program can be installed on computers and scans and detects inappropriate online and social media activity in a child's Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. GPS apps are also available and allow parents to track a child's cellphone from their own phone.
"For example, if a suspicious person is found to contact a MetLife Defender user's kid through these social media accounts, the parent will receive an alert, along with recommended actions if necessary," said Jim Galli, vice president of U.S.-sponsored direct business at MetLife.
Kenney encouraged parents who have older, mature children to have conversations with their kids about abductions and the dangers of interacting with adults they don't know. It's important to teach children what they can do physically and also that, sometimes, it's acceptable to say no to an adult or cause a scene if they feel they are in danger.
Lyon recently completed her sophomore year at Newsome High School. Principal Carla Bruning said the school holds training sessions for students and parents about the danger of social interactions online and on cellphones. Though school is not in session, Bruning said Lyon's disappearance has been emotional for Newsome families.
"It brings to mind to everyone that you have to be very cautious about what you're putting on social media," Bruning said. "It makes parents want to check their kids' phones more often. And I think that's a good idea, actually."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443. Aimée Alexander can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3408.