How parents can help protect children from online ‘catfishing’ and other digital dangers
The family of the Riverside teen girl who was tricked into a digital romance with a “catfishing” cop from Virginia want their devastating story to be a cautionary tale.
“In this tragic moment of our family, our grief, we hope some good will come from this,” Michelle Blandin, the teen’s aunt, said this week. “Parents, please, please know your child’s online activity. Ask questions about what they’re doing and whom they are talking to; anybody can say they’re someone else.”
The case involved a 28-year-old law enforcement officer, who drove from southwest Virginia to meet the 15-year-old girl last week in Riverside, where he killed her grandparents and mother, then set their house on fire, according to the Riverside Police Department.
He then drove with the teen almost 200 miles away until he was stopped by local officials and engaged them in a shootout. An autopsy this week found the suspect died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, officials said. The girl was not injured.
Police are still investigating how the pair met online and on what platform, but police said the suspect posed as a 17-year-old and worked to groom the teen girl into an inappropriate and exploitative relationship.
Austin Lee Edwards posed online as a teen to ‘groom’ a 15-year-old girl before killing her three family members in Riverside, police say. Officials said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Such cases are too common, say experts who hope this one will serve as a reminder to parents about having important conversations early and often with children about online conduct. That is the best way, they say, to protect youth from the many dangers that can lurk on the internet, from both known and unknown predators, cyberbullying, sexual exploitation and other concerns.
“We need to be talking to our kids about safety and making safe and smart decisions online,” said Callahan Walsh, a child advocate with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Is the tragedy in Riverside uncommon?
Unfortunately, for people who work in this field, the answer is no.
“If anybody thinks this is the exception rather than the rule, they’re completely wrong,” said Chris Newlin, executive director for the National Children’s Advocacy Center, which focuses on child sexual abuse. He said many of the details in this case happen every day — things like children being manipulated or catfished online for sexual purposes — but other details make it more sensational, including the suspect being a law enforcement officer and the multiple deaths.
The most uncommon part of this case is that it came to light, he said.
“Unfortunately, this is something happening every day in America,” Newlin said. “Sometimes we find out about it, but most of the time we don’t.”
A recent study from the University of New Hampshire found that about 15% of youth will experience some kind of online child sexual abuse. Although the predation often comes from someone unknown, Newlin said it can also be from someone a youth knows, such as a love interest or new boyfriend asking for explicit photos.
Each year of the pandemic there have been more and more cases of reported cyber threats, as screen time among youth has increased, creating more opportunities for predators, Walsh said.
He pointed out that just because kids are nearby, on the couch or in their bedroom, doesn’t mean they are safe from the online world.
“The pandemic gave a lot of parents a false sense of security,” Walsh said.
When should parents start talking about online safety?
The earlier the better. Walsh said 10 is the average age children now get their own phone, which means these conversations about internet interactions, best practices and threats should begin well before that.
“Look for teachable moments and make sure these conversations happen early and often,” Walsh said. The Riverside tragedy can be an appropriate conversation starter, depending on the age of your child, but the most important thing is to make these discussions regular throughout daily life, in the car, at the dinner table, he said.
Robert Olsen, a Riverside police detective assigned to the Riverside County Child Exploitation Team, said it’s important to remember that internet or phone access is a privilege that parents can monitor and control.
“As soon as you put a digital device in your child’s hand, no matter what age that is ... you need to get the child into the habit that that device is not theirs, it’s yours,” Olsen said. “And you’re going to look at it anytime you want.”
The conversations can and should develop as children get older, to include topics like cyberbullying, sexting, catfishing and even sextortion, Walsh said. But that also means parents need to understand these topics and the many ways they can play out, from social media apps to video game communication, he said.
“Talk to your kids about who they talk to online,” Walsh said. “Who are they meeting? What activities are they getting into? Make sure that the digital life of your child is understood by you, the parent.”
How should parents talk about and monitor internet conduct?
“It is absolutely impossible to monitor every little thing that youth are doing [online], and it’s unrealistic,” Newlin said. Teens will always want to hide parts of their lives from their parents, but that doesn’t mean parents should be in the dark, he said.
“Parents can and should be having conversations on an ongoing basis about personal safety,” Newlin said. “About what things to be aware of, being able to be informed about how people are out reaching out to kids.”
Newlin recommended asking teens about certain scenarios in a “depersonalized” way, perhaps asking whether they have friends or know anyone who’s been inappropriately contacted online or has engaged in sexting. Parents should also remind children they shouldn’t interact with people they don’t know from real life. He said it’s important to give children options about who they can talk to about these issues, if they don’t feel comfortable coming to their parents.
“All of us as parents want to make our kids feel safe and protected,” Newlin said. “When we make them feel very safe, suddenly they may engage in riskier behavior than they would have.”
Helping kids recognize what feels weird or creepy is an important instinct to develop, he said.
What resources are available?
Olsen recommends parental controls or services parents can use to limit access to certain sites or monitor what activities children are participating in. He said it’s important to remember that “kids are not entitled to have digital devices.”
Newlin pointed to his team’s website, the National Children’s Advocacy Center, which includes talking points and questions for starting some of these tougher conversations with kids.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has age-appropriate animated programming that can help engage children on topics of online safety, as well as resources for parents to better understand the threats, Walsh said. The organization also has a tip line to report cyber threats, at (1-800) 843-5678.
People can also call the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 hotline at (1-800) 656-4673.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.