The threat of sexual predators online isn’t as common as the news might lead you to believe. Yet, while bullying and theft are much more common online, there is still a risk from predators, particularly those who spend weeks, months, or even years insinuating themselves into the lives of teens.
Here’s how to spot “grooming,” how to teach kids to defend themselves, and how to stop it.
Limit Chat Apps To What’s Age-Appropriate
Using in-app settings, operating system settings, and parental control software, the first step is to limit or block certain apps. Some, like Kik and WhatsApp, aren’t really intended for kids in the first place, even if kids are allowed to use them. Make sure kids understand why these apps are off-limits (for now), and that they fully grasp the rules. And be sure to limit time on chat apps in the first place, so that they’re not distracting from homework or chores. Don’t forget that video games and other online apps, while they may not be officially chat apps, do have chat functions.
Give Kids A Positive Emotional Outlet
Predators often target kids going through a tough time: family struggles, low self-esteem, problems at school, and so on. Everyone needs a place to open up with that can be neutral, separate from family, and non-judgmental, and children may not think about the risk when opening up in a chat room. So, make sure they feel safe coming to you, that they have a teacher, counselor, or another adult who isn’t a family member they can discuss matters with, and that they can talk to a therapist if they want to.
Talk With Them About What They Do Online
Make a habit of checking in with kids about what’s happening online with them. Ask them about their games, their friends, what they’re doing online, and who they’re doing it with. If they make a new friend online, ask if they’re somebody they know in the real world as well or if they were someone they’ve met solely online. Make a point of noting who’s in their good graces.
Teach Kids To Trust, But Verify
Knowledge is the best weapon. It’s worth noting that the same exploitative and manipulative tactics are used to defraud people or bully them, so you should walk kids through some examples of how people who want to use them for something work. The difficulty is often this is the same process people form friendships with: shared experiences, likes and dislikes, positive discussion, and so on. The best starting tactic is to teach kids “trust, but verify.” Run the username or email through Google, for example, and show your kid how to do that.
Learn the “Red Lines”
There will come a point where somebody, whether they want embarrassing information or something more sinister, will signal their intentions. This can be as crude as asking for a credit card number or a picture, or as subtle as sharing something that seems personal, then demanding something personal in return. Teach your family to look for these red lines, to come to you or someone else they trust to discuss them if they’re crossed, and that if they’re uncomfortable, to walk away, no matter what they think the situation is.
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