COLUMBIA — Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott continuously tracks his 16-year-old daughter's whereabouts and checks her cellphone nightly to monitor her texts and social media.
That's what a parent is supposed to do, he said.
In an era when a kid's most prized possession is also the primary tool for sexual predators, bullies and bad behavior, it's parents' responsibility to keep tabs on who their child's communicating with, what they're posting, what they're re-posting and what they're receiving over their cellphone, said the sheriff of 23 years.
"Posting something on social media is like a gun. When that bullet fires out of the gun, you can’t call it back. It’s the same with anything you post on social media. Once you post it, it’s out for the world to see," Lott said during an interview in his office, surrounded by photos of his family.
He noted his own parenting skills have had to change with technology.
"The majority of times when we have a juvenile who's done something wrong, the typical answer (from parents) is, 'I had no clue. I didn't know,' and my answer is, 'You should have known.'"
It's a message the father of four daughters — the older three between 40 and 44 — has stressed repeatedly in recent news conferences about two unrelated investigations: An undercover internet sting to net sexual predators, and a 16-year-old expelled from Cardinal Newman School for his racist videos and arrested for threatening to shoot up the private Catholic school in suburban Columbia.
While obviously very different, both cases demonstrate that technology can be a dangerous weapon.
"That is your phone. You buy it. You pay the bill. You allow your child to use it. If your child's going to have it, you need to see everything they put on there," Lott said.
Public health professor Robert Valois agreed parents should check their kid's cellphone daily. He goes further to recommend limiting a pre-teen's or teen's time with the device, as social media can also be addictive and wreak havoc on a child's self-esteem, even if they're not being bullied, said the recently retired University of South Carolina professor.
"Screen time is brutal on their brains," he said. "It takes a concerted front. Mom and dad and whoever’s responsible needs to be consistent and firm but fair."
In the multi-agency internet sting called Operation Relentless Guardian, 14 men were caught communicating with deputies they thought were girls as young as 13.
Children "have to understand when they're communicating with someone in a chat room, that could be anybody. They don't know who it is, and they're posting personal stuff," Lott said. "Kids that age are very gullible and very trusting, so you have to be suspicious for them. You do that by knowing what they're doing, where they're going, who their friends are, all that stuff."
For that, parents can use the cellphone to their advantage, Lott said. He uses the free tracking app Life360, which everyone in his family has on their phone. His 16-year-old daughter knows she must keep her phone with her and is not allowed to turn it off.
"I'm following her every minute of the day. It’s like having a computer chip in your child," he said. "I watch her when she drives her car to school. I see how fast she’s going and that she goes straight to the school. That’s what my job is is to protect her."
In the Cardinal Newman case, Lott credits one mom's skills for bringing the case to light.
Checking her child's phone July 13, she saw the two racist videos made by the 16-year-old and sent to her kid and others earlier that day. She alerted school administrators, who called Lott's office. The video for which the juvenile was arrested and charged with threatening the school was actually made two months earlier but not discovered until after the other two that Lott said "shocked me and scared the hell out of me."
The mom who discovered those videos "exhibited all the traits of a real parent. That mom didn't hesitate and called. I'd like to give her an award for what she did," Lott said. "She took action with her own child to address what her child had and didn't report. That's a learning opportunity now. When you see stuff like that and know it's not right, you've got to tell somebody."
Authorities aren't saying what happened to the arrested juvenile. But in announcing that case closed Aug. 19 without additional arrests, Lott said he hoped other teens involved faced discipline at home.
When asked how, he held up his own cellphone and said, "Take it away from them. Discipline used to be, 'You're on restriction. You can’t go out. You can’t use the telephone.' Now kids live and breathe by their cellphone. When they lose that cellphone because they’re doing what they’re not supposed to be doing, that hurts them more than any spanking you could give them or anything."