Season 1: Episode 2

Hope and Will: A Parenting Podcast from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

A Pop-Up Chat: How My Second Grader Fell Victim to an Online Predator

Rachel had done everything right, or so she thought. She and her husband enabled parental controls on their devices. They regularly initiated conversations with their daughters about internet safety. Still, an innocent click on a pop-up connected their second grader with an online predator. In this eye-opening episode, Rachel shares her family's experience and Angie Boy, DrPH, from our Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children, discusses her team’s work, how her job impacts her own parenting and resources to keep kids safe online.

Originally Aired: August 31, 2022

Angie Boy, Program Manager for Prevention and Education at the Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children

Angie Boy, DrPH, is the program manager for prevention and education at our Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children. At work, Angie is responsible for overseeing multiple projects related to child abuse and neglect. At home, she’s Mom to an elementary school-aged daughter.

Rachel, Mom of Two

Rachel is a proud mom of two daughters. After her youngest innocently fell victim to an online predator while playing a popular game, she’s sharing her story in hopes of helping other parents become more aware of hidden dangers on the internet.

Lynn Smith

Lynn Smith is a veteran journalist, podcast host and mom of two boys. Her experience as the parent of a patient at Children’s inspired her to advocate for spreading awareness of childhood illnesses and injuries.

Tips for keeping young children safe online

Technology provides children with new ways to learn every day, but sometimes that comes at a cost. The internet can expose children to some scary stuff, including bullying, inappropriate content and online predators. Help keep your child safe online.


Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children

As part of our commitment to the safety, protection and well-being of kids, the Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children offers education and training to healthcare professionals, educators, parents and others. Programming is available live and on demand.

learn more

Lynn: Technology can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes the benefits come at a cost. Social media, online gaming, apps, chat rooms. The internet can expose children to some scary stuff including bullying, inappropriate content, identity theft and online predators. And new technology just keeps coming. On today's episode, we're going to speak with Rachel, whose daughter, Ava, was the victim of online sexual exploitation. We’ll also speak with Angie Boy, program manager of the Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta . Rachel and Angie are here to help you navigate internet safety for kids of all ages. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us. I want to get to know your family first before we get to what happened to Ava. Tell me a little bit about your girls.

Rachel: Ava is 9. She loves gymnastics, the swimming pool, and arts and crafts. She's my lovey-dovey of the two. I guess that goes together with being the baby. Then there's Brianna, she's 13, she is the one who made me a mama. There’s a special bond there. She's showing me so many new things every day on the computer, which is so funny because I remember getting frustrated with my own parents trying to use the computer.

Lynn: Now our kids are teaching us all about technology. That can be a good thing and a scary thing. Tell me a little bit about what kind of technology they were using at the time when the incident happened.

Rachel: Brianna had a laptop. It was something we got for school. It was like, “You're in middle school now, you have your own laptop.” But there were rules and restrictions on that. I had received an iPad for Mother's Day the year before. I had it not very long, and I let Ava use it. She wanted to play with her sister. She wanted to get on and play a game called Roblox.

Lynn: What are some of the security precautions that you took? She had her iPad that she got from you, and you had parental controls on it.

Rachel: I did. At the time, I was an Apple girl. I had my iPad, and my husband had an Apple desktop. I had my iPhone. I knew how to use the parental controls on there already. I had the Apple Touch ID where if anything was going to be downloaded using my Apple Pay, I had restrictions on it. Not only with the content, but with the time spent on it. I would get notifications to my phone. I felt pretty good about it.

Lynn: Were there any apps you were using or anything that allowed you to know exactly what they were looking at?

Rachel: Yes, I was able to see which apps they used and for how long. An hour here. An hour here. I thought I was doing what I needed to do to make sure that I was protecting them.

Lynn: Unfortunately, like everything with parenting…

Rachel: There’s always that something that slides through.

Lynn: Tell me exactly what happened to Ava in this game.

Rachel: We’re hanging out at home and my 13-year-old came up to me and said, “Mommy, Ava’s talking to people.” And I said, “What?” She said, “We’re not supposed to be talking to people online and chatting.”

Lynn: Your oldest came to you and said, “She's chatting online,” and what did you do?

Rachel: I immediately went straight to Ava. I said, “Have you been chatting?” And she said, “Yes.” I started going through the iPad and at first, I just saw, “Hey, hi, smiley face.” Stuff that didn't make sense. But then I noticed that there were people in there that seemed creepy to me, and I found more than one person that was acting like they were in a relationship with Ava. They said, “Where have you been all day?” They were asking her to send pictures of herself. She was begging them. “Please, please, please. I'm sorry. I was at my softball game.” Then they said, “Do you want to see me?” And they just sent her pictures of themselves.

Lynn: When you're going through these messages, what's going through your mind as a mother? That there are grown adults that are communicating with your then 8-year-old daughter and sending pictures that are sexual in nature?

Rachel: I remember physically feeling ill. Tears were just running down my face as I was scrolling. Angry. I didn't even know what to say to her.

Lynn: I can only imagine. And this is an online video game where there’s a chat feature?

Rachel: Roblox is the original game she was playing, but that game had a popup. Roblox, pretty much when you look at it, it's a great game. But what she did is in that game itself, there was a popup. She clicked on it. It’s an application where all the games you love to play can be in one place and there's a chat. I just got chills saying that because to me that sounds like a pedophile playground.

Lynn: What did you do when you found these messages? What happened next?

Rachel: I told my husband, and he called the police. They asked her for pictures, and she sent them a picture of her legs. She also sent a face picture, and she looked like a child. She's a baby. She was wearing pajamas in one. I was like, “Wow.”

Lynn: So, you called the police and what conversation did you have with Ava?

Rachel: Oh, first I had to calm down and then when we talked, I told her that what happened to her wasn't okay that it was wrong, and that if she wanted to talk about it, I was here. She said she didn't want to talk about it, and I told her that I understand if she didn't want to talk about it right now, but never talking about it—it's not an option. That is what mommies are for. I just assured her that I loved her and that I wanted her to know that I was sorry.

Lynn: What would you say is the warning to parents that have the parental controls in place that feel like they're doing all the right things?

Rachel: Scammers and these kinds of people are always finding something new. It’s not the same as when we were kids. It's not the “look out for the slow creepy cars” and “don't get into any stranger's car.” Think bigger. Give them information. Stop signs. “Hey, when this happens, that's a big stop sign.” We talk about that. Ava has one game now where she can chat with one friend. It's her sister, and she's happy. She loves it. I gave her that privilege.

Lynn: And, sadly, she had to learn just how dangerous this can be. What happened after you called the police?

Rachel: We were called by the detective, and he asked us to come be evaluated at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta . My mother and I took Ava there and we met with their amazing team. I honestly did not know what to expect. I was scared. It didn't seem like it was my life. I know that sounds so cliche to say, but it really didn’t.

Lynn: What did the treatment look like?

Rachel: They interviewed my mother and me. Ava was playing the whole time with one of their therapists and then I met with the police officer. We talked about how there are pedophiles that the police were already watching. It was an ongoing case.

Lynn: Did you feel at the end of it that you got the answers that you needed on how to help her through this?

Rachel: They gave me a lot of information. They were so awesome, and it was a great experience. They gave us resources for counseling. They offered to do counseling for Ava. I just felt good when I left there, I was so glad I went.

Lynn: She’s now getting the help that she needs. That's the most important thing. Thank you for being with us and sharing that story so that other parents can know some of the dangers that are out there.

Rachel: Of course. Thank you so much for having me.

Lynn: Angie, thanks so much for being here. This is scary for parents. They don't know how to navigate it, so I love that you have a center, the Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children . Can you tell me a little bit about how you protect our kids?

Angie: We are a medical model, child advocacy center with Children's, and we see patients who have been victims of abuse or neglect. Then my side of the house handles prevention and training, so we do a wide variety of training in the community for parents, educators, students, pretty much anybody that reaches out to request a training. We provide training on a lot of different topics. One of our most popular right now is online safety. We talk to parents about what's out there, what their kids are using, how can they protect themselves and how they can protect their kids. We also have programs for kids where we talk about a lot of different things, depending on the ages of the kids from digital citizenship to true online safety. We talk about how to navigate using apps, websites and all kinds of things that kids are exposed to online.

Lynn: And I'm so glad, Angie, that you're here to talk about specifically what's out there and that's what the Stephanie V. Blank Center does. What's out there when it comes to dangers on the internet, what are some of the things that you've seen in your scope of work?

Angie: There are a lot of different areas where kids are accessing content online, so there are some dangers that are related to explicit content that parents may just not want their children to see, whether it's pornographic images, graphic content, or violence. But then there are also predators, and that's where our biggest concern is, and that's where we tend to see victimization. Kids share information, sometimes very innocently. Thinking they're talking to a peer when really, they're talking to an adult who is disguising how old they are and breaking down kids’ walls to get little bits of information. Then they put all of that together and will approach a child. Maybe they'll ask for a photo or they'll ask to meet. Kids don't always realize that the people they're talking to online are strangers. We see kids all the time who say things like, “Oh no, I know them. I've been talking to them online for six months.” But you've never met them. You've never seen them in real life. That's still a stranger. And particularly with younger kids is if you haven't met them in real life, not just seen them on a video call or a video chat, but met them in real life, they're a stranger and need to be treated that way. And really building up their digital security in that sense, recognizing that people aren't who they say they are online.

Lynn: Beyond just having a conversation with your kids on how to avoid that conversation, how do you protect them from even getting there in the first place?

Angie: The biggest way to protect them is by constantly supervising their experiences online. We like to say that the internet is this vast, unsupervised activity. You would never let your child go to an afterschool program that wasn't supervised. But anytime you give them access to the internet and you're not supervising, then they've got unsupervised time. So, no phones, tablets, computers in the bedroom. Any internet activity is done in common areas. You're listening in to what they're doing. If they're watching a movie or you think they're watching a movie, and they start having a conversation, ask who they're talking to. Why are they having a conversation in the middle of watching Netflix? Are they really watching what you think they're watching? Go in and check. “What movie are you watching? You told me you were on Netflix. Why do I see you on YouTube?” Be willing to be annoying about it. I drive my daughter crazy all the time, just sort of spot checking. Thankfully, she hasn't yet really delved beyond toy videos on YouTube. But it's a concern so you want to make sure that you know where your kids are going online. Just like you know where they're going in real life, you should know who they're encountering and what apps and other websites they might be using. We see a lot of parents who aren’t on social media, but their kids are. That's dangerous because you don't know what's out there. You don't know what your kids are encountering and how you can best protect.

Lynn: I know people are out there listening right now saying, “I don't have time to monitor this. That's why I'm putting them on the iPad. I've got to work. I've got to get stuff done, and this is going to keep them busy so I can get this accomplished.” What do you say to those parents? Are there apps that we can put in place that will block any of this from happening?

Angie: The first thing we would always recommend: Go into the settings for the phone or tablet you have, whether it's an Apple device or an Android, and make sure you've got the tightest restrictions. Make sure that you've got the highest level of security on your devices. Then look for a third-party system that works best for your family. Something like Net Nanny, Bark, Webwatcher. Use software that will help track where your child is going.

The concern is that a lot of times this software will notify you after the fact, so it's not always simple. You still must have that oversight and have those conversations about where you're going, what you're doing. Now with younger kids, it's a little easier because you can put on guided access on a tablet and they can't leave the app you put them on. With younger kids, it's easier. As they get older and get a little more tech savvy, that's when it really becomes important that you have conversations about safe use. You have conversations about the consequences.

It's not so much that they're doing anything wrong by looking at inappropriate content, but are they being a good digital citizen? Maybe they're a victim of cyber bullying or maybe, unfortunately, they're perpetrating cyber bullying. Those are the kinds of things you're looking for too. It's not necessarily just the online predator.

Lynn: These are conversations that are hard to have. Do you have any advice on how to best approach.

Angie: Start simple. Ask, “Hey, I heard about this crazy new trend on TikTok, or I saw a news article about this. Have you heard about this?” And see what your child says. These are for older kids that are interacting on social media. Start that way, you know, and say, “Hey, have you heard about this? This seems kind of crazy. Is this something happening?” Or “Is this the news media blowing it out in proportion?” You are easing into the conversation. But with younger kids, ask them, “What are you learning in school about technology? You know, can you show me what you've learned? Can you show me the sites that you're going to at school?” Start having conversations, “Okay, these are great sites. What other sites do you know about?” And see what they tell you and then say, “What would you do if you saw something that you didn't like? Online?” Could be something scary. It could be that they accidentally see something inappropriate. What would you do? And have the conversations. You don’t want to sound accusatory; you don’t want them thinking the internet is bad, but you want to make sure they know they can come to you if something goes wrong.

Lynn: It’s a balance of you don't want to scare them too much, and then you don't want them to just feel so free that they could go into some dangerous situations. If they do, and there are some personality changes, what should we be looking for, that might set off that alarm bell that they might have been put in a situation where they’ve been victimized online?

Angie: If they seem secretive, you know, they’re trying to hide what they’re doing. If you go to do a random check and suddenly the history has been cleared, what are they hiding? Why do they want to clear the history? Are they getting text messages or messages from numbers that you don’t recognize? Numbers that may not be saved as a contact in their phone. So maybe a name you don't recognize, but it's because this is a new friend or it's a new study partner. But if it's just a random phone number, that's concerning. So how did this person get your contact information? How are they contacting you on Discord or on WhatsApp?

How are you getting these contacts made? So, you know, multiple numbers, you don't recognize secretive behavior. They may start withdrawing, acting more fearful. Maybe they are not wanting to go online anymore when you know they really liked playing a particular game through a gaming system and now they don't want to do that anymore.

Any of the behaviors that just seem a little off, we don't always want to chalk it up to, “Oh, they're a teenager, it's just moody, it's the way they are.” Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe there's something they're concerned about. And it may be particularly with younger kids, maybe they did an internet search, just typical childhood exploration, and they typed in “breasts” into Google and ended up seeing something they weren't prepared to see.

Now, they're afraid. One of the things we encourage is that parents—when their kids are online—have some sort of contract or agreement with their kids. Particularly older kids that outlines how devices and the internet are being used withing the household.

The rules could include where the devices are being charged, what sites are appropriate and what sites aren't. But then you also need to talk about what happens if inappropriate content is viewed. There might be consequences, but you want them to feel like they can come to you.

Even if they've messed up and they've done something they really shouldn't have done, you'd rather know and be able to address it, than to have them fearful and not reaching out for help.

Lynn: What age should we be having these conversations? A lot of 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds have those iPads, even with safety devices, I mean Ava was 8. So, when do we have these conversations?

Angie: When they start using a device, sometimes it's as simple as, “Hey, here's the iPad. We're going to watch ‘Bluey’ together, and then the iPad's going to go away because we only use it for an hour a day.” That's a simple contract with a 3-year-old child.

Then as they move into school, they're more accustomed to rules and codes of conduct and things like that because they have them in their classrooms. As they move into elementary school, you can have that conversation, “I'm trusting you with this device, whether it's a tablet or a phone, but there’s a code of conduct when using it.” Then you just continue to advance it as they mature. We don't like to put an age on anything just because so much is dependent on the maturity level of the child, but you really want to revisit these conversations regularly. If you have a written contract that everybody has signed, you revisit it at least every six months because their maturity level is changing, technology's changing.

Maybe there's a new app that you're like, “Nope, we're not going to use that app in our family. I don't know the app well enough. It's not safe, so we're just not going to use it.” The contract needs to be updated.

Lynn: What's a typical month like of different interactions children are having online that scare you?

Angie: We’ve seen several different examples just within the last month or so—one was a sexual assault of an older teenager who met the perpetrator online. We see examples that come through the emergency department and then come through our clinic. We'll see examples of kids who have shared photos online or via text message, inappropriate photos that have gone back and forth, and those photos end up being shared and the child is then a victim of exploitation.

Lynn: It's frightening to even imagine that that's the potential and the important information. You point out these photo sharing, it's something called metadata. Can you explain that to me?

Angie: Any photo that you take has metadata on it that gives the location of the photo, will tell the date and time, that kind of thing.

Turning off location settings on your phone is the biggest way to protect against that being able to be used, because perpetrators can use a piece of software that costs about a hundred dollars, and they can capture the metadata off photos that you're posting on social media. You can go in and anytime you see a photo on social media that says, “Taken at (fill in the blank).” You can go grab the metadata off that photo and you can find it with this simple piece of software to within about 10 yards of the location of that photo. Turning off location settings is big. You can turn location settings on for things like maps when you're using it or your weather app, things of that nature.

You can get those emergency alerts but you're not broadcasting your location. The other thing you can do is take screenshots of your photos and post the screenshot that does not have the metadata attached to it. There are a variety of different ways you can protect photos but turning off location settings is one of the biggest ways that you can protect your information.

Lynn: That's scary. What about when it comes to some older teens, high schoolers, and they're hashtagging certain things or they're talking about certain sports?

Angie: Yeah, with high schoolers because they're more likely to be using social media, so they're more likely to be on Instagram and TikTok, and maybe Facebook, but probably not. You really must be careful when you're using hashtags to avoid accidentally identifying yourself. We've seen some kids who know all about not sharing their age online, not sharing their school and things like that, but then you go look at the hashtags in their profile. And it's, you know, #Classof2023, #MHSgirlssoccer, #junioryear.

Well, they've just told everybody, and perpetrators can use that, and they can say, “I can find that school, I can find that soccer schedule.” And they can show up at a soccer field. So being careful about what hashtags you use. Are they identifiable?

Are the location settings turned off? How are they interacting with people? And again, with things like Instagram, their mental health concerns around comparison. Make sure that they're in a good mental health head space, not just their physical online safety, but also their mental health and wellbeing, depending on what they're doing online.

Lynn: Can we talk for a minute about these YouTube toy games that you talk about? These videos of just average people unboxing games and playing and having all these challenges?

Angie: They are ridiculously annoying as a parent who has a child who loves them. In my household, we talk about the issue of clicking on other videos that are recommended. Then, looking into the comments and making comments because that's usually where predators are hanging out. I've talked with my daughter about how the comments section is off limits, and she cannot click on an associated video unless it is the same thing.

That's one way to address it if they've already seen these videos and know they're out there. The other thing you can do is change the URL in a video to where when you play that video, it will not bring up an associated video. Teachers use it a lot in classrooms when they want to show a video on the Bill of Rights, but they don't want this whole host of other videos popping up.

Lynn: That's such good advice. I can imagine, you talk a lot about your daughter here. You have to deal with this yourself. You've seen the worst of the worst, and yet, you still have to be the parent just like us. How does it influence you?

Angie: I'm much more particular about where she goes and what she sees online, what videos she's allowed to watch. Her limits are much more stringent than a lot of her friends, and I'm already getting, “Well so and so can do it.” We'll be hearing that a lot as she gets older, but she knows what I do.

I'm honest about what I do for a living. And she knows, not obviously the horrible details of what we do, but she knows that there's bad out there, and my job is to protect her from that. It also helps that we have these conversations, so she knows. She's been really good about asking and if she has something she wants to watch, but it's above TV-G, she comes to ask, and I'll look at it and decide. I am often saying yes more than I'm saying no. But if I say no, I tell her why and explain why I'm saying no. So far it has worked. Now she's only 9, and I think as she gets older, it’ll get more difficult. But I think because I've laid those expectations out and she understands where I'm coming from, it makes it a little bit easier.

She doesn't have a phone and won't have one of her own until at least middle school. Anything that gets downloaded to the family iPad, I must approve. The same thing with my phone. I must approve what's going on it, so I know what she's accessing.

Lynn: Oh, that's so great. I'm hearing so many actionable items that parents can do today. Having a contract with your kids to set limits, having important conversations about what to look for, and supervising their activities. Because you wouldn't just let them go out and in the neighborhood unsupervised. Finally, I would imagine it's a lot of modeling that we do as parents. If we're posting all these pictures and we are not being a good digital citizen ourselves on social media, that's not going to look good to our children. It could be putting them in danger as well. Could you talk to me about that?

Angie: When you post your back-to-school pictures or your family pictures, you want to make sure that they don't have identifying information. It's okay to say they're going to fourth grade, or it's the first day of fourth grade. But you don't want to list the school they're in, the teacher, their favorite color, or what they want to be when they grow up.

Those are dangerous. If you want to take those pictures for posterity, and you want to post them on Facebook, then blur out some of those details. When you're posting and you're putting hashtags on posts, be careful that your hashtag doesn't accidentally identify something about your child. Make sure that what you're posting about your child is uplifting, not something like them having a meltdown at Target. That's embarrassing to a child. We wouldn't want somebody to post a meltdown if we had one so why do we do that to kids? Think about all the ways we post things online and make sure that we are modeling good digital citizenship.

Lynn: Maybe if we all followed your advice, the internet would be a much safer place, and I wish that was the case. I hope that this information just transforms parents. There are going to be big changes that I make in my household. So, Angie, thank you so much for being with us.

Angie: Sure. Glad to be here.

This podcast is for general informational and educational purposes only. It is not to be considered medical advice for any particular patient. Clinicians must rely on their own informed clinical judgements when making recommendations for their patients. Patients in need of medical or behavioral advice should consult their family healthcare providers.