The Internet - a hub of all things, good and evil. Fortunately or unfortunately, it has become an indispensable part of our lives, and the lives of our children.
It’s tempting to simply skip the conversation and hope that our children will not come across anything ugly online. However, we need to remember that it’s not their innocence that needs protection, but the children themselves. On the other extreme, imposing a no-internet policy will hardly ever work with today’s children, and quite honestly, may even render them at a disadvantage when it comes to interacting with their peers, in addition to the risk of them dismissing their parents as overly controlling. In a world where we live and breathe technology, the best we can do is to teach our children to use the internet responsibly.
Although they may not be able to avoid it entirely, children stand a better chance of knowing how to deal with potential dangers when they are aware that the dangers exist. When it comes to issues like that of online predators, we really should choose to tell our children than let them find out, sometimes the hard way.
No matter how close you believe you are with your children, know that they may not open up to you about something as intimidating as an online predator. It is up to you to be open and honest with your children - you must be the one to approach them on difficult subjects such as this. The more you talk about such things to them, openly, the more comfortable they will be about reaching out to you for help.
Here’s what you need to keep in mind while speaking with your children about online predators:
State the facts, in an age-appropriate manner
Explain to your children that online predators are grown-ups who pretend to be children or teens like themselves. Warn them to be wary of accepting invitations from strangers - no matter how harmless they may seem. Advise them not to respond when strangers send them messages or emails. There are grave legal consequences of sending inappropriate pictures and sexting, too.
You may also show them news stories that support your claim, to let them know that this is a serious issue with equally serious repercussions if it gets out of hand, and that you are not over-reacting.
Explain in detail about “grooming tactics”
Grooming tactics refer to certain patterns in speech and behaviour utilized by online predators on social media platforms and chat rooms to build a rapport and win the trust of children. Often, children tend to think that such questions or statements stem from a place of friendship. Explain to them that a person they have only met online cannot really be trusted fully, especially when they’ve just met them.
You may use these examples to illustrate:
Asking where the computer is located/where the child is chatting from - trying to find out if parents or other family members are around
Asking the child about locations, such as where his/her school or home is located or where he/she likes to spend time - trying to find out where the child lives and get other personal information which can be used to threaten or cause harm in the future
Making promises about a modelling job, love or other forms of flattery that involve the child’s body - trying to get the child to send them compromising pictures
Feigning concern, digging for personal details - trying to gain the child’s trust, making them believe that the person on the other end of the computer is a true friend
Asking for a phone number or requesting a private chat room conversation - trying to get the child in a space where others cannot see their conversations
Explain about risky behaviour and risky relationships
Unhealthy risks include taking drugs or trying other things they are prompted to do by the stranger online. Tell them they should ideally never meet with someone they have only communicated with online, and under no circumstances should they agree to meet alone.
Help your children understand what a healthy relationship would be like, and warn them against risky relationships where they may be in danger of being exploited. Another sign of a risky relationship is one that they are forced to keep a secret for any reason.
Get specific about flirty conversations & explicit pictures
Flirting online may seem harmless, but it could quickly get out of hand. Re-emphasize that the people they may be conversing with online may be harmful and often much older than they are, with sinister motivations. Warn them to delete messages and block anyone who may be talking dirty or sharing explicit photos or articles with them.
Tell them they should never click pictures of themselves that they wouldn’t be comfortable showing to their parents, teachers or peers. Urge them to log off as soon as anyone online makes such a request to them and immediately inform an adult whom they trust. Make it very clear to them that such pictures can (and will) be misused or even used to threaten children or their families.
Assure them that you are approachable
Let them know that they can always count on you to be there for them, no matter what. Encourage them to come to you if they have questions or confusion with regard to any interaction they may have had on the internet.
BEYOND THE CONVERSATION - other steps you can take:
Your responsibility, as a parent, does not stop with the conversation. As you are aware, teens often rebel! Set backups in place to create a safety net around your children and be there for them to ensure they don’t get into trouble.
Place the computer in a common room where you can keep an eye on them and insist that they use laptops and mobile phones only in these common areas. Make this a family-wide rule and not just something you expect your children to do, so they are less likely to rebel against it.
Limit the amount of time your children spend using the internet. Another family-wide rule you can make is to ensure that no one uses the internet beyond a certain hour (for example, 9 pm). This will improve their sleep patterns as well.
Install a parental control software that will help you block harmful content and monitor your children’s online activities.
Make sure your children are not using any social media platforms if they are underage.
Most importantly, keep an open attitude that your children will feel comfortable with, in case they have questions or would like to discuss with you about people they are meeting online or offline.
Remember that children who feel lonely, lack parental attention and/or have issues with their own self-esteem are most likely to fall prey to online predators. Therefore, how you interact with your children and participate in their lives will go a long way towards keeping them safe.
Writing credit: Authored by Anitha, a mother of two children with interests in EdTech and a strong advocate for Digital Citizenship.
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