Experts warn about online gaming safety after Amber Alert teen found
LAYTON, Utah — The 13-year-old in an Amber Alert issued out of Layton Tuesday night was found safe in Nebraska early Wednesday morning.
Police said a gas station attendant in Grand Island, Nebraska, noticed something suspicious about a car and the people at the gas station early Wednesday morning around 1:15 a.m. The attendant called police, which resulted in the arrest of the suspect, 26-year-old Aaron Zeman.
The 13-year-old appears to be in good condition, and they’re working on reuniting him with his family in Layton. Police said the suspect and the victim exchanged messages in an online game.
Now, experts are warning about risks that exist in online games.
Lt. Travis Lyman with the Layton Police Department said it is not always cell phones where risks can be present among kids, young adults and adults, as what played out in this case stemmed from an online game.
With so much tech demanding our attention, experts are boiling it down to two key components that will help protect one’s family.
The first key component is communication.
Susan Kennedy, director of community engagement with The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that often times kids who have experienced some kind of exploitation online do not feel comfortable going to adults to share what is going on in their online lives.
There is also the worry that once they share, they will have those devices taken away.
“A lot of times, people who are perpetrating harm to kids online, they know that and they’re doing things and saying things to isolate that kid and telling them you’re going to get in trouble. Or, even sometimes, they’re threatening harm, and kids feel like they have to deal with that on their own,” Kennedy said.
The second component in safety measures for parents, Kennedy said, is being on the same social platforms and playing the games their kids are playing, and seeing how they are using it.
In this Amber Alert case, the 13-year-old’s family contacted police and turned in their son’s device after finding messages between the stranger and their son through the “Roblox” game that they said were troubling.
Engaging and seeing through the eyes of the child can be a game changer for parents staying in the know with their kids, Kennedy said.
“The best way to do that is jump in there and play with them,” Kennedy said. “And notice as they’re playing if they’re getting messages; if they’re hearing the chat, whose reaching out to them, how they’re talking and having conversations with your kids.”
While they may seem like small steps, they’re moving toward a big conversation.
“Sadly, this type of communication, grooming, and enticement that it appears happened in this case, is more common than you think,” said Lyman.
Not just a “now” conversation, the impact may last years later.
Richard Piatt, director of communications for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, said the impact of these situations can be complex.
“The criminal justice system can punish people to the extent that it can, but the point is the victims still suffer. Part of the reason we say this is such a big deal is there’s many kids who are affected by this and it lasts for their lives,” Piatt said.
Layton police said while these cases do happen, rarely does it escalate to the point where someone is enticed out of their home to leave with another person like this.
The suspect will face charges in Utah. In addition, given the crossing of state lines, police said the suspect could face federal charges as well.
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