Last week I received a message from a parent who asked me for a referral to a video that showed a real life scenario that she could show her 13 year old daughter that would give her daughter a bit of a scare, and show her that there are people on the internet that could be dangerous. She didn’t think her daughter was taking her warnings seriously enough, particularly in regards to Instagram. Below is my edited response to her. I thought it was an important issue for many parents, and decided to post it here. (Names have been changed)
Susan, thank you for your message.
Of course, there are many true stories about kids being approached and hurt by predators online. However, in my talks to students I tend to talk about these dangers in general terms rather than relate true stories or talk about my actual experience with helping families who have had such an incident.
As part of my cyber safety talks in schools I usually show younger students a very good video, but it is fictional (see below). What this video teaches students in an entertaining and interesting way, is how social media really works, and how important it is to really know who you friend on social media. It also shows how vulnerable you can be on social media if you don’t use caution and available privacy settings to protect your profile. This video is a little bit scary, but more importantly points out how vital it is to think of our online safety as we do our offline personal safety.
During my talks to students I tend to focus much more on helping kids find ways to still have fun online by using safer apps and safer online practices. I teach them how to discern if an app is actually safe. I give them suggestions of safer apps that myself and other experts in the field have tested and researched in regards to the privacy settings and security. I also show them how to set up their online profiles to prevent strangers from sending them nasty messages as I find when I ask for a show of hands, there is always a very large amount of students who use certain apps, like Kik Messenger that have been sent messages from strangers, and sadly the majority of these students will have hidden these approaches from their parents.
But, It Is Dangerous Online!
Many kids see approaches by strangers online as part and parcel of joining a social media site. Some kids accept stranger requests, and some don’t. It depends on how attractive and harmless the request appears and the child’s own risk taking limits as to whether they accept the online friendship request or not. Accepting friend requests from strangers is particularly prevalent in students who crave popularity, they will accept many stranger requests simply to boost their “likes” and follower numbers. These children often feel very safe behind a computer or mobile device screen, and don’t know how they could possibly be harmed by someone online. Unfortunately, one of the biggest risks right now for younger children using social media is blackmail. There are increasing reports of predatory strangers blackmailing younger children by threatening them with exposure from fake photo shopped nude photos set up to look like the child. This is done to blackmail them into online sexual encounters or to obtain real nude photos. Some kids will tell a parent about this, but some don’t, they are simply too scared. So yes, there are very serious risks online.
Do Scare Tactics Help Keep Kids Safe Online?
There have been several studies done on the effect of scary stories to dissuade kids from engaging in all types of risky behavior, from online chatting with strangers and sharing unwise posts, to dabbling with drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity and dangerous driving. Some studies have found that this approach as the main focus is failing. Kids simply laugh off these scary stories as a sort of elaborate trick by adults to stop them having fun. An approach that some studies show is actually having more of an effect, is non confrontational, open conversations about online activities in a comfortable environment with parents or carers, before the need arises. And education around safe behavior online of a positive nature. This type of approach, of course, takes a lot more work, because parents and teachers need to really be up to date with technology to be able to help educate and adequately supervise children. There are no short cuts. “Don’t get out of bed again cause the Boogie Man will get you!” Only works for a short time.
Children of all ages are going to be involved in the digital world, whether we like it or not, and we need them to be able to navigate it safely.
Strong parental boundaries are also really important. Your child needs to know that even though they may disagree, their parents can set a limit, and there will be real consequences if that boundary is breached, in the same way as they would do for any other type of boundary. For example, “No hitting your brother, yes, we know that you think it’s effective, and that he deserves it, but that’s our rule. We explained to you why it’s not allowed”. “So after all the explanations, the family meetings and working out other ways to communicate, if you hit your brother, you will have to go to your room for an hour”. We’d like our kids to be more considerate of their siblings, but that takes maturity, and in the meantime we don’t want their siblings to be hurt. So if fear of being sent to your room is going to do it, then so be it.
If we use a social media example, it might be- “Yes, we know you think that a public Instagram account is safe and you think you can post what you like, but we have researched it, and found that it is safer to set the privacy settings and only share limited photos with only your friends. If we find out you have an account that is set to public posts, and you share photos of yourself that we feel are unwise, we will ban the use of Instagram for now, or take other measures to limit your use of social media for a while until you agree to respect that rule”.
You’re The Boss! Hopefully you have done some research on Instagram, you know how it works and what the potential risks are. You have had a two way conversation with your daughter about how she can use it safely, but the bottom line is, like everything else, your child needs to abide by your boundaries for their own safety.
You Can’t Stop Them!
Of course, you cannot absolutely be sure your child will follow this rule or any other rules for that matter when you set a boundary, any more than you can be sure that once you turn your back she won’t hit her brother. But, if you caught her hitting her brother or setting her Instagram account to the public setting and sharing unsafe photos, then you should do what you would do for any other infraction and follow through with the consequence you have set. For this basic parenting strategy to work, of course you do need a good working knowledge of Instagram and the mobile device she uses to post to it. You would need to check her mobile device with her occasionally without forewarning to see if she has more than one account, and to ensure the privacy setting is set to on. And you absolutely need to follow through on a reasonable consequence for the infraction. Don’t go over the top, don’t ban everything for a year! Give yourself somewhere to go. Up the ante if it takes some time for her to see that you mean business. For more tips on boundaries around digital devices see this post.
Fear Is Good!
Whilst scare tactics on their own certainly isn’t a long term solution to keep any child from unsafe behavior, warnings are of course important. Fear is what keeps us all alive. If we were not afraid of falling we would probably walk in unsafe areas. Children might break all their parents rules if they had no fear of the consequences. As adults, fear of being caught by the police might stop us from speeding. But fearful scary stories about awful things happening to children on the internet used in an over the top way, can make some children, and adults for that matter, feel that they are being overly manipulated. Reasonable warnings balanced with reliable education around safer practices should be met with less resistance, and lead to longer term online safety.
Your approach to the digital world and your child has to be balanced, in the same way as balance is important for many other potentially dangerous activities. If you are genuinely terrified of the internet for your child, you have to try to minimize your own fears so that your child believes that your concerns are reasonable, and fair. Your children are more likely to take a safer course of action if they know HOW to stay safe, whilst understanding that your boundaries are not based on an irrational fear. Parents who understand how to use the internet safely are far less fearful of it than parents who shy away from any of their child’s technology out of fear or because they feel they simply won’t be able to keep up.
Stay Up To Date
Keeping up to date with your education around the digital world is essential to being able to adequately supervise your children online and to support them with staying safe online. This doesn’t mean you allow access to everything, it means learning what is safe for your child and when your child can be trusted to use digital technology or various apps safely, with your guidance. If you are not ready to supervise, they won’t be ready to jump into the digital world either. Attend digital educational talks to stay up to date and keep an eye on this website and my manuals that are being constantly updated with new guidelines and settings.
CEOP has some really great videos for students of all ages. This is the one I usually show kids from Grade 3 – Grade 8 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_o8auwnJtqE