In today’s digital age, kids are more technologically savvy than ever. Your kids probably play with apps on your smartphone and know how to watch videos on Youtube or record their favorite shows with the DVR. Parents use online learning games to teach their preschoolers everything from colors to phonics to counting. And it’s not uncommon for eight and nine year-olds to play games like Minecraft or visit websites linked to their favorite TV shows.
Kids should be encouraged to expand their horizons through computers, but it’s also important that they (and you as a parent) understand the dangers of online predators who can hide behind technology, and how to talk to your kids about it in order to keep them safe.
Most of the time, the Internet is a safe place where kids can watch videos, play games, and learn about anything in the world that interests them. There are times, however, when the Internet becomes dangerous. People who want to exploit children use a process called “grooming,” which is basically manipulation in order to build trust and lure a kid into a face to face meeting. There are 3 things you can do to help keep your kids safe from online predators.
1. Understand how online groomers manipulate kids
Each case is a little different, individualizing the approach to appeal to a particular kid’s situation, but grooming usually involves establishing a relationship, building trust, and creating a feeling of isolation.
Groomers start by establishing a relationship with a child. They pretend to relate to their victims, sharing similar interests, understanding their problems, and sympathizing with their emotions. They do this by using interests on a kid’s Facebook page or other online profile to start a conversation online. Often the groomer will use flattery, complimenting the victim to affirm his or her feelings and choices, to strengthen the “relationship.”
This step is important for a groomer because establishing a relationship makes the child less likely to be suspicious of the groomer’s intentions. Once a groomer doesn’t feel like a stranger, it’s easy for kids to suspend the feelings of caution that are usually associated with strangers.
Once groomers have established the relationship, they work on building trust with their victims. Often the groomer pretends to be a supportive friend. He or she may even share fake secrets to show how much he or she trusts the victim. Groomers invest time in their victims, making them feel important.
After they’ve built trust with their victims, groomers try to create a feeling of isolation. Groomers make their victims believe no one else understands them. A groomer might tell a kid things like, “Your parents don’t really care about you. I care about you more than they do”, “I bet your friends don’t really like you and talk about you behind your back”, or “Your parents don’t treat you fairly”. Although it may seem absurd that your kids would believe things like this from some stranger online, you have to remember that this person is no longer a stranger.
By the time a groomer plants the seeds of isolation, the victim trusts him or her. Victims believe these predators are sincere. At this point, kids might feel like if they tell their parents about the interactions they’ve had online, they’ll lose their computer privileges.
The ultimate goal of most online grooming is a face to face meeting with the victim. The groomer will often start by talking to the victim on the phone. These phone calls ultimately lead to an attempt to meet in person. Kids agree to in-person meetings because they feel safe; by now they trust the groomer. The groomer may promise gifts or an exciting life where the victim will have freedom without his or her parents’ “unfair rules.” The groomer sometimes convinces the victim that they’re in love, encouraging the victim to run away so they can be together.
All online grooming doesn’t lead to a face to face meeting. Some groomers find the process itself to be exciting and may only take advantage of a kid’s trust over the Internet before moving on to another victim. However, that doesn’t mean these “hit and run” groomers as they’ve come to be known don’t exploit their victims.
The hit and run groomer may like the thrill of lying or enjoy manipulating someone’s trust, but many times these “relationships” lead to inappropriate online discussions or illegal sexual images being shared between the groomer and the victim, so it’s not something to shrug off by any means. These victims are often left feeling like they’ve been taken advantage of and confused.
2. Recognize the warning signs of an inappropriate online relationship
Kids agree to meet or share inappropriate material with groomers because they may be lonely, want to try something adventurous, or may just want to feel like they’re making their own decisions. An important thing to remember is that any child can become vulnerable to an online groomer.
A kid who seems happy and well-adjusted with no previous signs of trouble can become victim to an online groomer just as easily as a kid who has trouble in school or doesn’t make friends easily can. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is thinking that your kids can’t fall victim to online predators.
Common signs that your kids might be communicating with a groomer include:
- Spending more and more time online
- Being secretive about who they’re talking to and the sites they’re visiting
- Switching screens when you enter the room
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Receiving mail or phone calls from someone you don’t know
3. Talk about online predators with your kids
Talking about the dangers of online predators can be tricky. You want your kids to be safe, but you don’t want to scare them into thinking the world is a terrible place. But because any kid can become a victim, it’s important to talk to them about what’s appropriate when using the Internet.
Here are some tips for talking to your kids about Internet safety:
- Be approachable. Let them know you’re here to help if they get into trouble online. They can always come to you if they’re concerned or have questions.
- Talk about their online friendships. Know who they’re playing games with, who they’re talking to, and what information they share.
- Tell them about online grooming. With younger kids, use the concept of “stranger danger.” Talk about how just like in real life you wouldn’t share personal information or talk privately with someone. Make sure they understand what personal information means. With older kids, explain how easy it is to pretend to be someone you’re not online and why someone might want to do that.
The Internet is supposed to be a place where kids can learn and have fun. Occasionally, people try to take advantage of kids who are online to do just that, but don’t know about the dangers of online predators. By knowing how online grooming works, how to spot the warning signs of inappropriate online relationships, and how to talk to your kids about online predators, you can help keep your kids safe even when they’re online.
To learn about what social media sites your teens are using, read What We Don’t Know: Social Media and Teens.