WESTLAKE, Ohio (WOIO) - “He robbed her of her innocence.”
That is how a Westlake mom described what happened to her 12-year-old daughter.
She said the terrifying experience was two weeks of hell that changed her daughter’s life. The mother wanted to share her story in the hopes of helping save other families from facing the same social media nightmare.
“I watch my kids very closely. I’m very involved in their lives. I do everything possible for them, and this really caught me off guard,” she explained.
She said her daughter was being bullied online, then a man who identified himself as a 12-year-old boy befriended her on Instagram.
He showered her with compliments. Eventually those compliments turned sexual and quickly escalated into the unthinkable.
“He would start sending pictures of him,” she explained. “He would send videos of what he was doing to pleasure himself thinking about her, and of course, that raised her self esteem thinking, ‘Wow, this guy likes me.' And then he pressured her to reciprocate.”
The sexting went on for nearly two weeks. The predator even threatened to blackmail her daughter by sharing the nude pictures and videos with her daughter’s friends if she didn’t send him more.
It wasn’t until the pressure became too overwhelming, her mother said, that her daughter broke down and cried for help.
“'Help mom. I need help. There’s something wrong,'” she described “It was a surreal moment being in the police station when they brought her in for questioning. You think, ‘How did this happen?’ You feel like this is an out-of-body experience.”
Police kept her daughter’s phone for six months and pretended to be the 12-yea-old girl in an effort to track the predator down.
Officer Kendra Yurgionas was an Investigator with Ohio Internet Crimes against Children Task Force for nearly two years. Officer Yurgonias investigated a sexting case involving a 9-year-old victim.
Now, she works for the Westlake Police Department. The officer created age-specific digital safety programs for the city.
She teaches kids as young as 7 years old to the high school level about social media and online dangers.
Officer Yurgionas says it’s important for parents to have a conversation with their kids before they are introduced to social media.
She has candid conversations with her students to get their attention.
"I always tell kids, ‘Would you walk around outside naked? Then why are you sending nude images online?’ And they giggle at it, but, it hits home a little bit,’ expressed Yurgionas.
She says there are important rules students should follow, like, if you wouldn’t want your parents to see it, then you shouldn’t post it.
Have a private profile. Make sure location services on your phone are off so it doesn’t identify where you are. Don’t post pictures that make it easy for strangers to figure out what city you live in, or what school you go to.
“We need to learn how to use social media as a tool. Right now we’re being used as tools by social media, and by all this technology, and until we learn how to manage it, we’re going to continue to have issues,” said Yurgionas.
Brian Dewyre has been a mental health therapist for nearly 30 years. In that time he’s seen an increase in kids dealing with serious social media and internet issues.
He counsels families to try to work through those issues. The most severe cases include patients with anxiety, depression, and even having suicidal thoughts.
“When they give their kids a cellphone, you’re giving them wide range access to anything that’s out there on any computer, and is your child ready for that? Most children are not. And they have to sit down and set up the rules and responsibilities in that home for managing that device,” said Dewyre.
Dewyre explained that going on platforms like Instagram and checking how many likes you have, and trying to measure up can trigger the emotional part of the brain for adults and children. He says it can be an addictive behavior that can have a serious negative effect on the mental development of children.
“Part of the brain that governs reason and logic. decision making consequences is not fully developed until the mid 20s,” said Dewyre.
Dewyre says social media can be a positive tool. But, he teaches his patients how to manage their lives without making it the center of their world, by helping limit their exposure to it.
He says that process doesn’t happen overnight.
Police never found the Westlake girl’s predator.
Police said he covered his tracks. Her daughter is still fearful, knowing that he’s still out there. The mother says her daughter is brave and strong as she continues to go through counseling. slowly getting her life back to normal.
“It is a lifelong lesson, not only for her, but for her brothers and sisters,” she expressed.
They saw the absolute agony she was going through. “It was absolute hell.”