The virtual world of the internet can be just as dangerous a place as the physical world. And with smartphones and social media becoming increasingly prevalent, children are now targeted in ways never seen before.
No one is more aware of that than Angeline Hartmann, the director of communications for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Hartmann hosts the MISSING segment on A&E’s Live Rescue, which airs Fridays and Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET. She spoke with A&E True Crime to discuss the work she does on the show helping locate missing children and the role the internet plays in facilitating the abduction of those children in the first place.
Tell us about the work you’ve done on MISSING, and why you think the internet is such a problematic place for children right now.
We’ve had several recoveries of missing children. We’ve featured 100 kids, and more than 50 percent have been recovered. What stands out to me about this season, doing this so far, is that every week we seem to be talking about a child who left home, and they were probably lured away [by someone] online.
Is there something about this precise moment in history that makes children more vulnerable to online victimization?
With COVID, everybody is online more than ever before—children and adults. Especially with [some social media platforms], and especially now with COVID—children are looking to connect. Not only with each other, but to the outside world. And they’re putting a lot more of themselves out there than ever before: pictures, videos.
They’re yearning for more connection, and so they put a lot more out there, and that’s a lot more out there not just for their friends, but for the public to see… It’s not a good cycle.
Is there anything parents can do to better protect their kids?
It’s important to say that we don’t want to scare families. But we want parents to know that their children can be targeted online. That can happen anywhere: They can be targeted online in their bedroom, or while they’re sitting right next to you on their phone. So it’s up to parents to talk to kids about online safety. They have to set limits about how much children are able to access, what they’re able to access and they have to have important conversations about what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate.
And what should they tell their children? What is and isn’t appropriate?
If somebody online tells your child that the relationship [between them] is a secret, that’s a red flag. If someone asks your child for personal information—where you live, your phone number—that’s a red flag. If someone is talking to your child and they promise gifts or favors, or they buy whatever the tokens are in the game they’re playing, that’s a red flag. If someone contacts your child on multiple platforms, that’s a red flag.
A lot of these may be common sense to families, but to some people, it’s not—especially parents who are not so familiar with how social media platforms and games work.
No one can be with their child 100 percent of the time. That’s not realistic. It’s also unrealistic to think children wouldn’t be on the internet. The answer to not having your child be targeted is to empower your child to tell you if any of these things happen.
Within the larger community of underage internet users, are there some children who are more vulnerable to online predators?
As kids become teenagers, they evolve. During adolescence, they become more withdrawn from their parents, and they’ll become more secretive. And a lot of teenagers also participate in online gaming. So all those things combined are not good. That’s a prime time for predators to reach out.
This all sounds grim. Tell us about one of the success stories you’ve had recovering children on Live Rescue.
There’s a little girl named Talia Jones who went missing in June 2019. In May 2020 we featured her. A viewer immediately recognized [her], and she was found on August 31, 2020. She’d gone missing from California. They found her at a residence in Buffalo, New York. The investigators told me directly that they never suspected [her abductor] had the resources or even the desire to leave California. Because of the nationwide reach of A&E, someone outside of California had information. Without the exposure of A&E, I really believe that Talia would still be missing.