Central UMC educates on technology threats

Homeland Security Investigations special agent Ted Francisco provides information on internet safety Sunday afternoon at Central United Methodist Church in Lenoir City.

Parents gathered in Central United Methodist Church’s pavilion Sunday afternoon in hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the potential dangers technology poses.

Ted Francisco, Homeland Security Investigations special agent, gave a presentation on his experience investigating various online crimes that can directly impact today’s children.

Touching on the looming presence of online predators in seemingly harmless apps and server-based games, Francisco cemented the idea that children’s etiquette and choices online can be tied to parenting.

Francisco gave an anecdote of a presentation where a mother of a 13-year-old was left confused by what to do when her daughter refused to give up her phone and alleged an invasion of privacy.

“We’ve got to be the mama,” he said. “We’ve got to be the dad. God did not put us on this earth to be their friends. Now, if you get to be their friends along the way, that’s great, but it’s our job to protect them. It’s our job to guide them. It’s our job to teach them. … That’s our God-given purpose for our kids, is to protect them.”

Though the problem of online predators is international, Francisco said human trafficking is a prominent issue in East Tennessee.

“There’s not a lot of cartel business going on in East Tennessee,” Francisco said. “There’s not a whole lot of textile smuggling back and forth across the border from warehouses in East Tennessee. What there is a whole lot of in East Tennessee is child exploitation. When I got here, there was just case after case after case after case of child pornography. Then, as I started doing presentations and educating people in the community to what human trafficking is, then we started getting more and more cases of human trafficking. If you don’t think that human trafficking exists in the United States, you’re wrong. In Tennessee, you’re wrong. In East Tennessee, you’re wrong. In Lenoir City, you’re wrong.

“I have worked sting operations from Lenoir City where we go on the computer — we have an undercover that goes on the computer posing as a 14-year-old girl,” he added. “Within the first 20 minutes, we had 47 people that went on there and said, ‘Yes, I’ll come and have sex with you’ to a 14-year-old girl at a hotel here in Lenoir City.”

To prevent child exploitation, Francisco said setting boundaries is one way to make sure children are properly using electronic devices. He monitors the users his son plays with on various games, and he makes sure he and his son know all the users on the games.

He also recommended setting specific rules, such as banning devices from rooms or not allowing device use at night, and following through with consequences if rules are broken.

The most important part of teaching children about technology use depends on parent-to-child communication.

“There is not a single slide that I have that says ‘install an app on your phone’ or ‘install something on your kid’s device’,” Francisco said. “You talk to your kids. You explain to your kids. You tell your kids. You sit down with your kids. You have to have that communication. Without that communication, you don’t have a relationship.”

Though the presentation was not directly centered around church, the effort was part of Central’s mission to create better parent leaders.

“We’re in the process of really trying to offer something like this once a semester as far as something for our parents because something we’re trying to emphasize as far as a church is that the parent is the primary minister to their kid, and we have access to their children a limited amount of hours a week, but they live with their child, they eat with their child, they go to sleep in the same house as their child,” Evan Nester, director of family ministries, said. “We can only do so much.”

Nester believes training can help parents better understand challenges children may be facing.

“We’re trying to set up these events every semester that set up these topics to help our parents be better leaders to their kids,” he said. “The first one we did, we had Duffy Robbins. … He’s a really popular youth ministry guy, and he came and spoke and he addressed different topics as far as the development of children, the different issues that they’re facing and that kind of stuff. We’re trying to offer different things like this each semester that address different times in the lives of their kids to better equip them as parents. We want to partner with our parents, and we understand the impact in a kid’s life can be a lot greater if the church and the family works together versus individually.”