The openness and immediate access offered by the internet allows children to connect with not only friends and family, but complete strangers as well. This can put unsuspecting children at great risk, as kids who meet and communicate with strangers online are often easy prey for internet predators. Given the added anonymity of the internet and how it normalizes communicating with people we don’t know, it easier than ever for predators to take advantage of kids, all while hiding behind a computer screen.
However, by being mindful of their tactics and the keep an eye out for warning signs, parents can help keep their kids safe while online.
What is Online Grooming?
Online grooming is the process of reaching out to and befriending a child online and builds up their trust with the intention of exploiting them and causing them harm. Such harm can range from sexual abuse and exploitation to obtaining important financial information. Just like with in-person grooming, online grooming is about taking advantage of a child’s vulnerabilities or naivety to normalize inappropriate behavior.
Grooming is often a long process, with a predator steadily wearing down their victim until they are willing to give them what they want. As such, it is important to detect it early on and address the problem quickly.
What are the Warning Signs?
Though it can be difficult to know if your child is in contact with an online predator, there are certain signs to look out for.
- Has your child become secretive about their online activities?
- Have their become obsessive about being online?
- Do they receive phone calls or texts from people you don’t recognize?
- Do they receive gifts, mail, or packages from someone you do not know?
- Do they seem withdrawn from their usual friends?
- Do they change tabs or turn off their computer around adults?
- Have they started watching or downloading pornography online?
- Have you caught them lying more?
How Can I Keep My Kids Safe?
First and foremost, if your child comes to you with a problem, don’t overreact. One reason that kids don’t tell their parents when they have a problem online is that they’re afraid they will lose their internet privileges. Help them understand them you’re looking to help them, not just punish them. If you child doesn’t feel like they must hide things from you, there is less of chance that they’ll be manipulated by a predator. From there, set some clear rules about times and places for device use: if you know when and where they’re likely to use their devices, you’re more likely to be able to check in with them.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to keep your child safe online is to teach them smart safety practices. Even if your kids are tech savvy, they might not fully realize the dangers of the internet, so giving them an adult’s perspective can be a big help. Teach them the importance of being a good digital citizen and how they can protect their private information and social media accounts. This not only makes them less susceptible to internet predator, but also means they are less likely to fall foul of other online safety concerns.
You should also prepare your children in the event that they do meet an online predator. Explain to your children that predators can lie about their name, age, gender, and life experiences, so unless you have hard evidence, you cannot be sure that the person you are talking to is who they say they are. Also, tell them to be mindful of flattery and compliments. Predators will often try to emotionally manipulate their prey by offering them compliments, so they should always be wary of overly complimentary people online, ESPECIALLY if they’re talking about their looks. Most of all, you should stress that if someone they’re interacting with is making them uncomfortable, they should tell you immediately!
Internet predators a real and persistent problem, but if you are mindful of the warning signs and teach your kids how to be safe, you can rest easy that they’ll be a little safer online going forward.