The Internet is a vast source of information for all of us, and naturally some people use that information for good, and some for ill, like “grooming” and stalking children. So what things can you as a parent, teacher, or other concerned adult do to protect your kids against online predators and solicitation?
A lot of the information that can be found out there is woefully outdated. Likewise, a lot of the information about protecting children from online predators is from another Internet-era, before the Internet, GPS and hi-definition audio/video capabilities, were right in our pockets.
In searching for statistics, what we have found (that wasn’t from a bygone era) was that online predators tend to glean a lot of the information from social networking sites:
In 82% of online sex crimes against minors, the offender used the victim’s social networking site to gain information about the victim’s likes and dislikes.
65% of online sex offenders used the victim’s social networking site to gain home and school information about the victim
But the specific means of gleaning information is less important than the prolific, yet largely unwitting sharing of information with strangers. Predators may seek out children who are participating in attention-seeking behaviors as a way of finding connections with others. Sadly, these kids are generally the ones least apt to have a concerned adult to turn to, not less to report solicitation. These targeted kids may also not wish to report the behavior, as they may simply be glad for the interest and may naturally be naïve about its nature.
Protecting Children On- and Off-line
Tips to reduce the risk of children being victimized generally center around monitoring and controlling their access to the Internet in an age-appropriate way. But not all solicitation happens online, so more needs to be done to prepare kids to tell the signs. For parents, it is essential to make sure that their kids know from an early age what is the appropriate information to share with others, even people who appear to be friends (as this is what predators pretend to be).
Establish rules when to:
Send or post photos
Give contact or identifying information of themselves or family
Let kids know it’s best to:
Online socialize with kids only if friends in real life
Avoid personal discussions with strangers online, especially conversations involving sex, violence, and illegal activities
As older kids become eligible for social networking sites, they may wish to meet in person some of the people they have met online. It is important that a parent or guardian accompanies the teen to any first meeting, to determine if it’s safe and age-appropriate.
The idea of establishing rules is not to make the child fearful of strangers, but to instill in them the ability to scrutinize the communication with a healthy sense of caution. There is a saying that is popular in the security industry: “Trust, but verify”. This means not blindly accepting someone’s words at face value, but doing additional research to determine if the communication is indeed trustworthy.
Parental concern versus independence
We understand that some of the rules might be perceived by the teens as limiting their independence, but good parenting (or mentoring) is about finding that balance between providing the children with the tools to eventually become independent adults, and spending enough time with them that they feel loved and protected.
So a parent can safely lean towards being overprotective when the children are younger and until they can understand and internalize the reasons for the rules. Teenagers and adults alike are targeted by confidence schemes and scams, so learning to avoid them and protect their privacy will serve them well throughout their lifetime.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to protect kids from online predators is to establish a good rapport and open lines of communication with them. Social engineering relies on creating a strong feeling either of fear or trust.
The rule of thumb is if a child feels comfortable discussing their experiences with a parent, without concern for punishment or judgment, they can verify whether questionable online communications are scams or solicitation. It is important to remember that even if your children respond positively to online predators, they are still the victims in the same way that anyone who has fallen for a scam is only a victim.