When we were kids, our parents told us not to talk to strangers in the park, to look out for each other on the playground, and to steer clear of the “wrong” crowd. But in today's digital age, teaching kids safety rules is easier said than done.
While we try to know who our kids' friends are, it's harder to know who they're talking to online (where they can be at risk for cyberbullying or a target for predators). A Pew Research study found that almost 60 percent of teens have been bullied online, and according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, a little less than 10 percent of kids will receive an unwanted sexual solicitation while on the internet.
For Megan Jarrett, a school secretary and therapeutic support staffer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, these aren’t just statistics. Her 12-year-old daughter — who has autism but is very social and verbal — was targeted online by someone she considered to be a friend. “The ‘friend’ would text my daughter and tell her that she was her best friend, and then in the very next text be telling her that she was awful, was a waste of space, that she should kill herself and just make the world happy,” Jarrett says. “She convinced my rule-following daughter to skip math class one day and hide in the bathroom for no reason other than to see her get into trouble. All of this was interspersed with messages like ‘LOL, you know I was just kidding, right? You're such a drama queen!’ But it was clear to everyone who read it that this girl was doing things intentionally.”
And while cyberbullying is one of the most common threats to internet-connected kids, it's not the only one. Megan Morris, a stay-at-home mom of two in Ripon, Wisconsin, discovered her 16-year-old sister-in-law was targeted not by a schoolmate, but by a complete stranger, who was also a sexual predator. While living with Morris, the teen began chatting with a man posing as another teenager. Alarmingly, he would send her gifts including a cell phone, clothes, and even sexual items with the suggestion of using them for him. “When my husband and I finally caught on to what was happening, we phoned the ‘boy’ and made him send a picture with the date and her name written on a piece of paper,”says Morris, who quickly realized the man in the photo was a different person than the one in the photo her sister-in-law had been sent. “He was very obviously a grown man so we immediately called the authorities in and they promptly charged him with child enticement."
Of course, it seems unreasonable and unrealistic to keep kids off the internet forever. That's why it's more important than ever to be able to separate the real risks of the internet from the hype, and teach your family ways to keep everyone from common pitfalls that arise in this ever-connected world.
What are the real dangers of the internet?
The risks you actually need to watch out for might not be the same as the ones you fear the most. “It’s really hard to quantify how common this really is," says Julianna Miner, author of Raising a Screen-Smart Kid. "In many cases, kids that have bad experiences online never report it to anyone. Also, much of the data on inappropriate interactions with kids is derived from arrests and convictions, which grossly undercount the actual problem as in many cases — a police report never gets filed or if it does, an arrest or trial doesn’t happen.” However, in a recent survey of 2.6 million by Bark, an app that monitors media usage and alerts parents of red flags, 62 percent of teens said they had experienced cyberbullying, and over half encountered content of a sexual nature.
Miner says Jarrett’s daughter's experience of being targeted by someone she knew is the most common scenario — just as in real life, abuse usually comes at the hands of someone a child already knows. “In the case of our kids, it’s often coming from a peer or classmate,” Miner says. “And the more time a kid spends on their phone or device or whatever, the more likely they are to encounter something or someone unsavory."
"Spending a lot of time online also increases the likelihood of what’s called the ‘disinhibition effect,’" Miner adds. "Young people are already pretty impulsive; that’s how they’re wired. The more time they spend online, the more comfortable they get and the less careful they may become — especially late at night when they’re tired."
Any app or game that allows chatting anonymously has an added layer of risk. Certain social-media platforms, games, and apps allow users to communicate both publicly and privately, and share locations, and may be particularly dangerous, says Titania Jordan, Bark’s Chief Parenting Officer. “To avoid detection, predators will engage with their victims on anonymous messaging apps, through text messaging, or on livestreaming sites/apps," she says.
How can kids be safe on the Internet? Talk to them about how to handle dangers — and keep an eye on what they're doing.
“Most kids won't be victimized by strangers online, but we still have a great need to prepare all kids for safe, responsible screen time,” says Lasser. Here’s how:
- Simply talk to them. Miner shares, "We need to teach kids to trust their guts when something feels 'off,' and to withstand pressure from people who are trying to persuade them to do something they know is wrong." And, while it is less common, the conversation should also include advice against sharing personal information with strangers and meeting up with them in real life.
- Know what they're doing. In order to prepare your children for who they might encounter, you need to know their apps. “Familiarize yourself with each app your kid uses and learn who else uses it, how to use it, and even what functionality the app provides," says Laura Higgins, Director of Community Safety & Digital Civility at Roblox, a popular gaming app. "Be mindful of apps that allow online chat with others. Have a meaningful conversation about how to stay safe online, including how to report harmful content or behavior and how to understand the difference between an online friend they just met and their real-life friends." In addition to talking about how to stay safe, you should come to an agreement about the privacy they're allowed to have online, and how much you're allowed to monitor them.
- Use the tools at your disposal. There are devices, apps, and other software that can help you manage their online time. "My son recently got his first smartphone, and we decided to go with the Palm phone for its parental controls," Jordan says. "I also use a combination of Bark and the built-in, free controls that come with Android, like Google FamilyLink, and and iOS devices, like Screen Time, to monitor activity and location." Routers, like Disney's Circle, can set screen-time limits and also filter for content, and some apps your kids use might have parental-control functions.
- Check their friends. Catfishing is when people aren’t who they say they are, and there are signs to spot this predatory behavior. “Reverse image search photos they are sent or profile pictures of people they talk to, be wary of people who won't video chat or who have strange responses when asked questions, and don't trust things that sound too good to be true,” says Kathleen Boehle, Director of Student Safety Operations at Securly 24×7, a parental and school monitoring service.
- Ask them to tell you when they make a mistake. Boehle says to let kids know that they should tell you if they accidentally send someone an inappropriate image or something else happens online that shouldn’t have, so you can minimize the future risk. “There are some excellent resources at stopsextortion.com that can help,” she says.
- Talk broadly about hoaxes and other things you don't want them to see. “It’s natural to wonder if your child has come across these viral hoaxes,” says Higgins. Phenomenon like Blue Whale, Momo, or Slender Man are best left unmentioned until kids bring it up, lest you spark curiosity in them. “Kids are naturally inquisitive, and saying 'don’t look for the scary clown videos' will probably encourage them to do just that!” Higgins says.
- Do what's best for your family. “I really believe there’s not a one-size fits all way to parent around this,” says Miner, who has three kids (ages 16, 14 and 10). Her family rules are slightly different for each child. “The two older ones have phones, the youngest does not. All of the kids must check in devices prior to bedtime — a rule they absolutely hate, especially the high schoolers. We also have limits and carve-outs of times when tech and phones are not allowed: at the table, when guests are over, and so on. The rules are also different during the school year and during breaks from school, vacations, and when they’re busy with sports. It’s about helping them find balance and manage their time.”
Beyond talking and keeping tabs, parents should be on the lookout for unusual behavior from their kids.
The best way to make sure your kids are staying safe online is to keep tabs on who they're speaking with — if they suddenly start to clam up, it could be an indicator that something is amiss. “If your child is interacting with people online that are unfamiliar to you, you should ask for more information," says Jon Lasser, Ph.D., associate dean at Texas State University and co-author of Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.
If your child is exceptionally secretive about the online usage, it may indicate an inappropriate online relationship.
Still, we have to remember that teens also need some privacy, so parents need to balance safety with developmental needs. "Keep in mind, not all of these relationships are harmful, so conversations [between parent and child] about Internet safety can serve the purpose of clarifying, communicating, and reinforcing safety guidelines," Lasser says.
More red flags: Switching screens when you walk by, having items you haven’t given them (particularly phones), becoming more emotional, and using sexual language that isn’t age appropriate.
“Although some of this may seem like typical tween and teen behavior, these are the signs that are important to watch for,” Jordan says. She adds that these behaviors can signal the child is being "groomed" or prepared for an inappropriate interaction.
Megan Jarrett’s daughter's situation thankfully had a happy outcome when a real friend alerted a school counselor to the bullying. “We had talked about internet safety with our daughter — not only about not talking to strangers, but also what to do if a stranger sent her something that made her uncomfortable," she says. "I never thought I would have to warn her about her classmates, and especially someone that we thought was her friend." Jarrett now uses a parental control app, and she says her daughter’s online usage mostly consists of using her tablet in the main room of the house to play games and watch YouTube videos of dogs. “I know I can’t keep her safe online forever, but I’m going to try," Jarret says.
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