Are your kids staying safe on the internet?

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Are your kids staying safe on the internet? And what are our leaders doing about? Those were questions before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Monday on a hearing titled "Protecting Innocence in the Digital World."

Witnesses told senators how apps like Instagram and Snapchat can leave young people open to a world of danger, citing one survey of 2,000 teens that found 75 percent had been sent pornography online by strangers.

Our Ike Bendavid spoke with local parents and state officials about what they are doing to keep kids out of harms way.

"Depending on the age, it's a constant... confrontation, honestly," said Valerie Wood-Lewis, a Burlington mother of three. When it comes to talking screen time with her kids, she says it's easy for them to block her out. "The technology has surpassed our ability to keep up with it."

"Yeah, it's weird," said 18-year-old Grace Leckey, who says she feels safe when she is online but has still received some unwelcome messages. "There is just a lot of creepy people that use the internet to get what they want or try to get what they want."

And so parents like Wood-Lewis know that even well-intentioned, well-informed parents can't be everywhere at once. "I have seen things that they have not invited or asked for," Wood-Lewis said.

"Our own test account quickly discovered that young people, particularly girls, can be hunted like prey," Protect Young Eyes CEO Christopher Mckenna told the Senate Judiciary committee Monday. He described an experiment his organization conducted. They put up two selfies, each with three hashtags. They searched a few hashtags and liked a few posts. "Within a week we had dozens of men sending images of their genitals telling us that they were horny and sending us hardcore pornography through direct messages, even after we told all of them that we were only 12. They were relentless."

"We have had a lot of cases recently through my office," said Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan. He says the Vermont Internet Crimes Task Force catches the same criminals in Vermont. He says a big key to prevention is education. "We need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect Vermont kids, but we can't do it alone. We need parents to be engaged with children."

Important information for parents like Wood-Lewis, who plans to keep the conversation going. "The critical thing is to talk with your kids, increasing their awareness and self-regulation," she said.

One of the biggest issues, parents say, is finding the balance of giving independence to kids while also monitoring their internet use. Donovan says it's vital to know who your kids are talking to online. That goes along with basic safety tips including not providing information to strangers online, and making sure parents maintain an open dialogue with their kids.

The Family Online Safety Institute says that any time you give you child a new piece of technology you should set some ground rules. Those include:

- Time limits on how much they can use devices for non-school-related activities.
- Restrictions on situations or places where they shoudn't use their devices.
- Knowing where kids are going or what they're doing on their devices.
- Asking which apps and sites they use the most.

The institute says in order to be a good digital parent you should talk to your kids about their online habits and educate yourself, even if that means trying out apps, games or sites yourself. You can also use parental controls when available and check their privacy settings on social media.