For many New Jersey residents, the stay-at-home directive issued in early March has led to increased time on smartphones and computers.

It’s also resulted in a spike in online child pornography activity.

Authorities in Union County report “a surge in referrals involving child pornography offenses that coincides with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

During the first month after Gov. Phil Murphy declared a public health emergency, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office’s Cyber Crime Task Force received 29 child porn referrals, up from 17 in April of last year.

Meanwhile in Monmouth County, authorities report a slight increase in child porn activity.

John Pizzuro, the commander of the New Jersey State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, says this kind of activity across the state is up about 25% since the health crisis began, including more predators who are trying to make contact with kids.

“There’s definitely an increase in that more children are home in their own residence, their screen time is exceeded now (from what it used to be) — it’s going from like three to six hours," he said.

He noted children, like their parents, have been directed to basically stay home during the pandemic, “so you have boredom, you’re not able to go to parks, you’re not able to have your normal sporting activities. Children are now spending more time online.”

“What that does is it allows predators to actually manipulate children easier because of all that online screen time,” he said.

He noted because of the stay-at-home directive, there has been a decrease in the number of predators trying to physically meet up with kids but “we had one case where we had a predator that traveled from Oklahoma to meet a fictitious 9-year-old during the pandemic.”

He added: “Right now you’re getting a lot more requests for naked videos and pictures and sexually explicit abuse material.”

Pizzuro said because of this increased activity, parents need to watch for warning signs that something might not be right.

“They have to look whether their children are looking at their devices more. Do the parents notice that they get a text message or a message and their phone is underneath the table,” he said. “Do they notice their children going to the bathroom with their phone all of a sudden after they get a notification.”

Another problem, according to Pizzuro, is young people communicate in many ways.

“A lot of parents don’t realize that Sony PlayStation, for example, or a lot of the online games have chat features,” he said. “Children are at home playing more games but parents don’t realize within those games there’s a lot of opportunities for predators to go after children.”

He said those conversations, along with chats and messages on other social media apps, always need to be monitored.

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