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Is Your Child Talking to a Stranger Online (Part One)

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We all remember when our parents warned us “not to talk to strangers.” For those of us north of 35, that mostly meant we were not to talk to someone in person we did not know. Or do not talk to someone who approaches you that your parents do not know. Today this takes on a whole different meaning. Do not talk to strangers now applies more to the “online space” than the “in-person” space. But what are the odds that your kid will talk to someone online they do not know? And how early is this happening?

Every parent worries about online predators at some point, and we must be cautious. While it is rare for our kids to be contacted by a predator, it does happen, and it is best to be prepared. While the incidence of these unwanted contacts seemed to be declining between 2005-2010, the numbers surged back up post-pandemic. This is due to many of us being isolated and on our devices more than ever, giving predators a perfect opportunity to take advantage of and manipulate new online users.

Today’s article will be the first of a two-part series. First, we will discuss how these dangerous interactions can come to be in the first place and the risks associated. Then, next month, we will discuss how to prevent it from happening and how to talk with your child specifically.

A recent survey in 2019 of almost 4000 children found that 43 percent, ages 8-13, are talking to people they do not know online. They chat either via social media or gaming platforms. Some research indicates kids as young as five are chatting with strangers. This typically happens when they get access to gaming devices. It is equally terrifying that more than half of these kids are providing their addresses and phone numbers. We will also be remiss to think these conversations happen only among young children. Teens are just as guilty, and the incidence of meeting these strangers in person rises once young kids become teenagers. Many of these meet-ups result in a teen being taken. So chatting with a stranger can have many consequences, ranging from inappropriate conversations to grooming, soliciting of pictures, and even sex trafficking.

In reality, anyone can create a fake profile and pretend they are someone else. These predators can “groom” your child into thinking they are your child’s best friend or, for older kids, someone with whom they can have a romantic relationship. Research shows that predators will wait days, months, or even years to establish a strong relationship with your child or teen before they act on any plans they have for your child. It is incredibly easy for hackers to glean information from young children and then use it to access their parents’ accounts.

With older teens, we see a disturbing trend of predators using information to blackmail teenagers. For instance, if inappropriate pictures have been shared, the next step may be to ask for videos. If those are shared, then the predator may ask for more videos. If the teen refuses, this is when harassment and blackmail begin. This becomes a viscous, exhausting, and terrifying cycle that most teens feel they cannot escape.

Let me stop here for a second and mention that many times instead of an unknown predator asking for pictures or information, the “predator” is someone your child DOES know. More often, I see kids and teens pressuring one another for inappropriate information and pictures than I see predator activity.

As parents, we want to lead from confidence and knowledge rather than fear. Next month we will discuss what to look for specifically on your child’s devices and what conversations to have. In the meantime, your best defense is your open dialogue with your child and random device checks. It will be your absolute best way of discovering what your child is doing online.

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Kristi Bush serves as a national education consultant and social media safety advocate. She is a licensed social worker with greater than 15 years of clinical practice and health care experience. She attended Troy and Auburn University where she studied social work and counseling. Kristi travels nationally and has spoken with thousands of children, parents, professionals and organizations about the benefits and threats associated with social media. You may reach Kristi through her website at www.knbcommunications.com.

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