Before the holiday, news outlets broke stories of widespread sexual predation of children on popular social media and gaming sites. According to the New York Times, some virtual connections escalate to sexual abuse surprisingly quickly. The offender contacts a child, often posing as another kid, perhaps someone they know, or by attempting to create a romantic relationship. They build trust, and sometimes send graphic images to desensitize the child. Before long, the offender is eliciting graphic pictures and using threats to extort more graphic and violent images. This is happening across the country, to boys and girls. Many professionals believe it is not IF a child will be contacted by a criminal online, but when. The impact of these interactions are overwhelming and traumatic, sometimes leading to suicide or attempted suicide. According to a 2016 report, the Justice Department identified sextortion as “by far the most significantly growing threat to children.”
Allowing your child access to the online world comes with huge risks and responsibility. Responsibility we don’t often think of. What could go wrong when playing an online game, like Minecraft? Even the best intentioned parents, who care for and love their children deeply, can be impacted by online predators.
What can we do about it?
First, assess whether your child is old enough to handle being contacted by a stranger while gaming or online. Remember, children do not think like adults, and most will not suspect a fellow gamer or TikToker of having bad intentions. If you’re not comfortable having this conversation with your children, they are not ready for the online world. And that’s ok. Allow your child the space and time to mature in a healthy and safe way. There are plenty of offline opportunities for gaming and communicating. Kids can create endless Insta stories when they’re ready.
Start the Conversation
Be honest and non confrontational. Explain the situation as a matter of fact and with concern. “Sometimes bad people contact kids online and try to hurt them by asking them to do inappropriate things.”
Ask them if they have been contacted by a stranger or if they know someone who has. Make sure they know that they are not “in trouble” or “bad.” And that it is inappropriate, and sometimes illegal, for an adult to contact a child they do not know.
Most children lack the maturity to handle a situation like this. Tell them: “Some situations are too big for you or any other kid to handle on their own. If a stranger ever contacts you or someone you know, tell an adult immediately.” Assure them that you will always keep them safe because you love and care about them.
Family Media Plans
If you don’t already have one, create a Family Media Plan. Involve the whole family in creating a plan. This shows that you trust and value your children’s opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. Remember, at the end of the day, you’re the authority on keeping your children safe. For suggestions, see our resource here.
Preparing for an Online World
Require computers, gaming consoles and devices to stay in common areas so you can monitor content.
Make sure they know that they should always talk to a trusted adult about any online situations which make them feel uncomfortable, even if they are not directly involved.
Establish a list of trusted adults whom they feel comfortable talking to and who you trust.
Establish a list of situations that your child may learn about online that are just too big for her or him to deal with alone. (For example: mental or physical abuse or threats, suicidal thoughts or threats, sexual harassment or abuse, child pornography, risky behaviors, drug or alcohol use, texting while driving, etc...)
Who constitutes a friend online? People you spend time with offline. For example: Family, neighbors, classmates, and teammates are real friends. Acquaintances and friends of friends are not.
Turn off location settings and use/monitor other privacy settings.
Make accounts private. And teach kids how to block and report unwanted contacts.
Talk with your child about sharing personal information online and who can access that information. According to a Pew Survey, 71% of teens shared their school, 71% shared their city or town, 16% automatically include location in posts.
Establish a rule respecting other people’s privacy - do not take and/or post pictures/videos of others, ever, without their (or in the case of children under 13, their parents’) consent.
Assure kids that it’s ok to delete their names from posts and/or pictures they are tagged in.
Talk with your kids often about what they’re doing online and who they’re talking to. Get involved. Sit and watch, or better yet, play with them. Ask them to share funny posts with you. Show genuine interest and try not to be judgemental. This will keep your relationship open and honest.
Take advantage of device-free meals and car rides. Kids are more likely to talk about the impacts of their day in the car or at the dinner table when no one is distracted by a device. Ask questions and listen without judgement. Building connections strengthens your relationship with your children, making it more likely they will come to you when something is wrong.
Remember, virtually anyone can behave badly online, and many people do. This is the reality of the digital world. As parents, it is our responsibility to keep our children safe. Online access is not a necessity for a child. There are many studies that argue playing in the real world is far better for every aspect of their health, development and academic success. Slow down. Make time for conversation. Put your own device down and be there for your child. That is a necessity.