ABILENE, Texas — As the development of technology and accessibility to social media platforms continue to increase, the use of such platforms by children and teens has increased as well.
Predators are reaching out to their young prey on platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and even YouTube, according to innocentlivesfoundation.org.
While child advocate groups don't necessarily recommend parents remove their children from social media platforms, they do encourage taking precautions to keep them safe.
And, there are groups in West Texas that help with keeping them safe and preventing others from being preyed upon in the process. Operation: Preying on Predators in West Texas, manned by volunteers, is one such group.
The goal of Operation: Preying on Predators is to protect children from predators and fight to end sex trafficking. The team consists of former law enforcement personnel, former military members, security specialists, private investigators and victim advocates.
"Our goal is to fill the gaps in the system between law enforcement, the DA's (District Attorney) office, and places like CPS (Child Protected Services)," Jason Haak, Operation: Preying on Predators founder and retired law enforcement officer who served for the years, said.
Haak served two years with the Taylor County Sheriff's Office and 18 years with the Abilene Police Department. There he created and ran the Cyber Crime Unit.
With a few clicks of a button, Haak said these online predators continue to prey on teens.
"Today with technology. Today's predators groom your children daily by messaging them, pretending to be someone they're not, feeling the needs that your child is looking for. Love, affection, attention. That's what these children are looking for, and that's what these predators are giving them," Haak said.
Haak has been running Operation: Preying on Predators since September 2020 in Abilene. His organization began expanding into other cities after a short time. Now they are impacting communities through chapters in Lubbock and Big Spring as they continue to combat online child predators, find and recover missing children and rescue those who are being trafficked.
Child safety advocates and volunteers worry about how dangerous these cases of online and social media predators continue to be, especially since they continue to double every year.
"They're increasing, and the reason they are increasing is one, the predators are jumping out there learning and advancing with technology and contacting children that way. It makes it so much easier for them to groom your child. Two, groups like Preying on Predators and law enforcement agencies are making more efforts to combat these guys online," Haak said.
"They get a new friend is generally what they're called. This new friend pays them lots of attention. Your child might talk about this friend more."
This is why Haak said parents being proactive is key in this process.
"You can monitor, you can put safeties on your child's phone and their apps to watch who they are communicating with. That was as a parent you can reach out," Haak said.
Facebook continues to work consistently with child safety organizations online throughout the country.
"We're going to start restricting potentially suspicious adults from either discovering minors on Instagram or being able to follow them if they do find them somehow," Vaishnavi J with Facebook said.
If you or someone else you know has a tip and or lead, you are encouraged to contact local law enforcement agencies.