GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Groups that fight human trafficking in West Michigan say it’s more important than ever to help our children protect themselves from online predators.

With some schools and other activities going virtual amid the pandemic, kids are spending more time in front of a screen.

That means increased potential for exposure to bad actors — traffickers who troll social media for vulnerable youngsters they can groom for exploitation.

“We want parents to know what apps need privacy settings set, how to talk to your kids about internet safety and create protective measures in your homes,” said Rachel VerWys, co-creator and executive director of Solutions to End Exploitation.

The Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition, which is facilitated by SEE, is hosting an “online training event to educate and equip parents, educators and neighbors about online safety to protect children and teens from abuse.” 

The free, virtual event takes place Oct. 10 from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

Once you register online, you’ll receive a link to the event.  

The live webinar will feature Chris McKenna of Protect Young Eyes, a West Michigan nonprofit that tracks apps popular with kids, tests them for safety, posts warnings and provides step-by-step instructions for protective measures parents can take. 

McKenna is also pushing for a federal app rating system.

“(Right now), apps are rated by the creator,” VerWys explained.

“It may say 4+ on an app, so (you) think this is safe for a 4-year-old, but you often have to go into that app and turn on privacy settings and block access to materials still. So, we want parents to know what apps need to be addressed.”

The virtual forum will also reinforce red flags parents and kids should look for when interacting online.

“Friend requests from people you don’t know. Requests for pictures of your child or personal information about where they live. If your kids are receiving gifts from someone you don’t know or being asked to meet someone publicly that you don’t know. We want parents to know what to look for so they can prevent exploitation,” VerWys said.