Technology is improving the world at a rapid pace, but even the most helpful technology can become a problem in the wrong hands. For example, the evolution of the Internet has made it easier to stay in touch through social media and research school projects, while smartphones have made it easy to capture life’s special moments with a candid photo. However, this same technology may also be making children more vulnerable.

As an organization committed to securing justice and healing for the child victims of sexual abuse, the Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) of Texas are encouraging parents and guardians to pay closer attention to the digital media that children are consuming.

Not that long ago, the greatest online threat facing children was the overtures they might encounter in an online chat room, so many parents restricted access to them and even took the wise step of restricting computer use to highly visible areas in the home like the living room. However, smartphones have given young people more unrestricted online access and created new avenues for predators to find them.

According to a recent study, one in 25 youth received an online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make off-line, in-person contact. Considering that more than half of all American children between the ages of 8-12 have a cellphone, the odds of inappropriate contact are increasing.

The latest smartphone craze is even greater cause for concern. Pokémon GO is an “augmented reality” game created to take advantage of a smartphone’s camera, geo-location abilities, and easy interface. While enthusiasts praise the game for getting kids off the couch and walking outdoors, there are some troubling aspects of the game that parents should consider before turning their kids loose to “catch them all.”

First, the game can cause a lack of situational awareness, leading players to walk into traffic, wander out of their neighborhood or even fall off a cliff as two young men did in California.

Second, the game includes “lure modules” which can be brought to attract the digital characters and the players pursuing them to a particular area. Family-oriented businesses like ice cream parlors are employing this tactic to draw customers, but so are criminals who have placed those lures in low-traffic areas then robbed and assaulted players drawn to their “bait.”

Third, the allure of “catching them all” can cause players to disregard social norms like respect for property, with reports of players caught lurking near police stations and, just this week, one homeownever opened fire on players who were obliviously trespassing on his property.

If a child predator were to create optimal opportunities to exploit children, it would likely involve all the behaviors listed above. With that in mind, we are encouraging parents to review the accompanying safety tips and share them with their children to guide their behavior when playing Pokémon GO and other augmented reality games.

At then end of the day, the game is creating fun for kids and their families all over the world, but parents and guardians need to be aware of the potential opportunities this gives predators to exploit children. Because the threats on the path to digital exploitation in any form are real, a growing number of CACs across Texas are working with their partners in law enforcement to incorporate cyber-crime detectives into their efforts. We also work closely with the FBI’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force to investigate online crimes against children.

Our goal is to rally Texas communities in defense of children, working together to identify victims, apprehend predators and pursue justice. The key is for all involved to be aware of the new realities of the online world and stay alert and engaged.

So be aware, set up some family rules and be sure to seek help if you or someone you know has been inappropriately approached or harmed by a stranger. That way, we can enjoy the benefits of this impressive technology with none of the downside.

Tips for safe use of smartphone games like Pokémon GO:

  • Don’t leave the neighborhood without parental permission.
  • Don’t go alone. Take a friend or invite a parent to tag along. If you do go out alone, agree on a time frame in advance and check in every 20 minutes or so.
  • Be careful with Pokéstops and Pokégyms. They’re exciting finds, but they ay be patronized by someone with questionable intentions. So only visit them during the day with a friend or two.
  • Avoid isolated areas, especially if you’re alone.
  • Don’t risk your safety to get a Pokémon, no matter how rare it is. Not even a Pikachu is worth hopping a fence or wading in a pond.
  • Respect others’ property. Just because there is a Pokémon on a neighbor’s porch doesn’t mean you should walk across their lawn.
  • Watch out for tunnel vision. If your eyes are locked on the screen, you might trip, step off a curb, end up in a ditch, or wander into traffic. Stay alert!
  • Definitely don’t play the game on your bike, scooter or skateboard It might speed up play, but it also multiplies your risk of a serious injury.
  • Stay alert. If you want to listen to the game on earbuds, keep one ear open so you can hear what’s happening around you.

    CORSICANADAILYSUN: Smartphone games: Kids aren’t the only ones who want to ‘catch ‘em all’