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Experts offer online safety tips after boy's solo trip to Charleston for Snapchat meeting

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Experts advise that parents know what apps their children are using. Jenny Kane/AP

As police investigate the case of an 11-year-old who drove himself 200 miles to Charleston to meet a stranger from Snapchat, officers and advocates ask parents to rethink how they talk to children about internet safety.

"It's shocking," said Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds, whose officer Christopher Braun helped reunite the boy with his family. 

Reynolds said he was proud of the boy for realizing something wasn’t right and approaching Braun once he became lost in Charleston. He commended the officer for his actions.

"It could have been a really bad outcome," Reynolds said.

Police have taken the tablet the boy used into evidence and are now investigating the incident. They still have a lot of questions, he said.

Reynolds counted the case as a victory, but he hoped it would start a conversation for Charleston families about the dangers of the internet and social media.

"You don't have to be a social media expert. Most adults don't know what most kids know," Reynolds said. "I've been a parent of young kids, and it's humbling."

He advised that parents know what apps their kids are using and make time for honest conversations about the risks. "You wouldn't let a child walk in rush-hour traffic without guidance," he said.

Police recommended parents visit SCSafetyNet.com for more tips.

Beverly Hutchison, director of development and marking for the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center on King Street, advised parents to trust their intuition.

"You know your child best. You know their maturity level best," she said.

Hutchison recommended that parents treat the online environment like the physical environment. A parent would want to know if their kid was at a friend's house and who that friend was, and there shouldn't be a difference for online activity, she said.

Children should know the rules and the risks before they ever get a device, Hutchison said. Tell them not to share personal information online, but explain why that's dangerous, she said.

She recommended that parents look out for a child withdrawing and spending more time online than with peers or family. Ideally, friends they're talking to online should be the same people they know face to face.

Hutchison said she wasn't shocked by the case of the 11-year-old boy because she's seen the same thing happen over and over again in the media.

"They've never not known a world without the internet," she said. With kids today being "digital natives," they need to understand the risks at a young age, she added.

The Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center recommends that parents visit websites such as connectsafely.org and commonsensemedia.org to learn more about internet safety.

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Contact Fleming Smith at 843-607-1052. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

Fleming Smith covers crime and public safety for the Charleston area. A native Georgian, she previously covered breaking news and features for The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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