Alert for parents: Boy gets unsolicited porn link

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A West Michigan mom is sharing her family’s experience with unsolicited pornography in hopes it will help protect other children.

“It’s mortifying,” Beth Smith said, referring to the pornography-related text her son recently received on his Kindle. “If he had clicked on that link, it would have been damaging, I really feel like, because his brain is not developed enough to understand any of it.”

Smith does not allow her three sons to have any social media accounts: no Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook. Her 16-year-old is the only one with a cellphone. But the Byron Center mom wanted to make sure her other two boys, 12 and 9, had a way to reach their parents quickly over the summer, so she put what she thought was a limited texting app on their Kindles.

As it turned out, she was home when her 9-year-old, playing Minecraft on his Kindle, suddenly got a text message.

“He clicked (on the text) and he literally dropped (his Kindle), and he said, ‘I don’t even know what that is,’ and he goes running across the room, and I was like, ‘What is wrong with you?’” Smith recalled.

The unsolicited text claimed to come from a woman who lived on the family’s street and was looking for a “sex partner in the neighborhood.” It urged him to click on a link to see her pictures and give her a call, “if you’re attracted to me.”

“Instantly I felt guilty for having (the texting) on there,” Smith said. “I was raging, like, what kind of sick people are sending this stuff? We didn’t click on it, nobody touched the link that was in there.”

STATE REGISTRY AIMS TO PROTECT KIDS

Alisha Meneely, who lives near the Smiths, heard from several people who received the same text.

Meneely works for the Michigan Children’s Protection Registry, which falls under the Secretary of State’s office. Families can register their children’s cellphone number, messenger IDs and email addresses, and state law prohibits adult-related industries from marketing to them.

The small company that operates the registry, UNSPAM out of Utah, said there are 786,000 contacts registered for protection in Michigan.

“On a daily basis, adult product marketers scrub their marketing lists to ensure they are not sending unwanted solicitations to registered contact points including email addresses and mobile phone numbers,” Eric Langheinrich, the CEO of Utah-based Unspam, wrote in an email exchange with Target 8. “If someone receives an adult product solicitation and is registered with the Michigan Child Protection Registry, they have the option to file a complaint.”

If a company fails to comply with the Protection Registry Act, it is subject to fines and penalties as laid out in the Act.

Beth Smith’s family, which wasn’t registered previously, has taken that step now.

‘THAT TOOK FIVE SECONDS’

Meneely sat down with Target 8 and followed the texted link to see where Smith’s son would have ended up had he clicked on it.

“They’re extremely graphic,” Meneely said. “Lots of nudity. Lots of things that adults don’t even want to see.”

Then, after answering a few questions, including one that asked her age, she ended up at a live chat page.

“This is what scares me the most,” Meneely said. “That’s how fast a 9-year-old boy could come in actual contact with one of these girls. I mean that took five seconds. … Pretty much all you have to do is continue pressing, ‘yes,’ and you will get to where they want you to get.”

Eventually, the site asks you to sign up using a credit card.

“So many kids know their parents’ credit card or PayPal,” Meneely said.

Meneely said third-party marketers, which are paid by the click to drive traffic to porn sites, grab cellphone numbers and email addresses wherever they can.

“These companies that are hired (to push porn sites), they don’t care who they’re reaching out to whether it’s a 9-year-old or a 90-year-old,” she said.

KEEPING PORN AWAY FROM YOUR KIDS

Protect Young Eyes, a West Michigan nonprofit dedicated to improving digital safety for kids, lays out step-by-step instructions on its website to show parents how to block pornographic content as much as possible by installing filters at the router level and locking down devices and apps.

>>Protect Young Eyes: Parental controls

“When it comes to kids, more often than not their first exposure to pornography is accidental,” Chris McKenna, founder of Protect Young Eyes, said.

As the age of first exposure to online pornography gets younger and younger, McKenna said porn addiction, risky behavior and even child-to-child sexual abuse appears to be growing.

“We can’t prove causation … but we can look at it anecdotally and historically and say, hey, there’s something different about growing up today than even 10 years ago … and we need to pay attention to it,” he said.

Just as important as installing blocks and filters, according to McKenna, is talking to your children early and often about pornography, why it can be dangerous to children and what to do if they come across it.

“I don’t want parents to be afraid of the word ‘pornography.’ It’s just a word,” McKenna said. “Kids learn shame around that word because we treat it weirdly.”

If you’re uncomfortable talking about it with your child, McKenna recommends the book, “Good Pictures, Band Pictures: Porn-proofing Today’s Young Kids.” It can be found on Amazon and has versions for 3- to 6-year-olds and 6- to 10-year-olds.

Alisha Meneely cautioned parents not to panic if they find out their child clicked on a link to a pornographic site.

“That’s the first mistake parents do is they completely panic and they might yell at their kid: ‘What did you click on, what have you done?’” Meneely said. “Don’t do that because then they’ll feel ashamed and they won’t come back to you again if they see this again.”

Of course, you should also advise them not to click on links with which they’re not familiar.

Beth Smith’s son did everything right when the inappropriate text showed up on his Kindle. Smith is proud of him, but still bothered that he received such a text in the first place.

“I had to kind of talk him off a little bit of a ledge because he was really scared that this person lives on our street for real,” she said. “So we had a kind of scary moment, and we talked through it.”

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