Wherever the Kids Are is Also Where the Predators Are
This is a statement we make during all of our talks to parents. It’s just an unfortunate digital reality. Kids are harassed online. We no longer just need to lock the front door and windows in our physical home, but we also need to be vigilant and guard digital doorways. Have you ever made a list of all of the ways that your child can get online? It’s a sobering exercise.
Despite this reality, we invite parents to approach the topic of online predators with calm. News stations love predator stories and contact us about them all the time. The numbers show us that the number of kids (1 in 5) who are bullied by other kids is about the same number who experience unwanted sexual solicitation online.
Therefore, not every kid who spends time online will be approached by a predator. But, every kid who spends time online is at risk of being approached by a sexual predator* and should therefore know exactly what to do if it happens. This blog post intends to show parents and caring adults what things their children need to know.
*when you read the words , sexual predator, it’s easy to narrowly think only of someone who tries to meet up with your child for a sexual encounter. Think more broadly. In the digital age, this phrase also refers to those who simply “get off” by sending young people sexualized images, engage in sexualized DM conversations, or are successful in extorting the child for a photo of him or herself. We must prepare our children for all of these scenarios.
Stranger Danger Doesn’t Work in the Digital Age
When I was a kid, we were outside constantly.
We knew not to talk to strangers – defined as people who I didn’t recognize. I was five when Etan Patz was abducted in 1979, signaling a kind of “end of innocence” for children. Parents like mine told us to avoid people we didn’t know who had puppies and candy, driving white Chevy vans with few windows.
In other words, we identified strangers based on what they looked like. The little hairs on the back of my neck would surely stand up in the presence of a person with bad intent. At least, this was the theory.
Fast-forward to today. Kids are physically safer than ever because they don’t ever leave the house. Patriarch Park is a distant memory – today’s digital parks are infinite in number and kids spend time in them from the comfort of their bedroom.
And when it comes to Roblox, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, or any online app, who’s a stranger? If you were to open an account on one of these apps, you would see an endless stream of good-looking, clean-cut, hipster-perfect selfies for profile pictures. Everyone looks nice. No windowless vans. How can a kid tell?
Example Statements Used by Tricky People in a Digital World
In the digital age, we need to teach our kids to identify strangers not by what they look like, but rather, by what they talk like. Since everyone looks normal and friendly online, looks are no longer sufficient. Instead, we tell our kids about tricky people.
Here are some tricky people red flags – maybe read through these with your elementary or middle school child:
- Tricky people are people who I don’t know who are very nice to me. Some of the most dangerous people on the internet are also some of the nicest people on the internet. “You’re very pretty. Has anyone ever told you that before?”
- Tricky people are people who I don’t know who ask me questions. They want to know things about me so that I will trust them. “What things do you like? Do your parents ever make you mad?”
- Tricky people might invite me to use a different, more secret platform. “What’s your Snap name? Can we talk more over there?”
- Tricky people are people who might seem a little pushy when I try to stop talking to them. “Hey, why won’t you respond? Don’t be mean to me like this.”
- Tricky people ask me to keep things a secret. “Just keep this between us.” Tell your kids there’s no such thing as a good digital secret.
- Tricky people might offer you gifts for no reason. “Do you have a Venmo account? I want to send you some money as an early Christmas present.”
- Tricky people might threaten me so that I’ll do something I don’t want to do. “Send me nudes or I’ll tell your parents something bad about you.”
- Tricky people are intently looking for kids who express any type of emotional distress. When they see kids posting about having a bad day, hating their parents, or experiencing a break-up, that’s when they sweep in with empathy and understanding. “Oh, my parents are the worst, too. What happened?”
After you’ve gone through this list, give your kids permission to walk away from anyone, anytime, for any reason. Tell them they’re in control of the conversation.
Ask yourself -> does my really nice kid know how to walk away from a really nice predator? If not, give them permission. If you don’t, walking away can feel mean, and a lot of kids don’t like to feel like they’re being mean.
Maybe say this exact statement to your child ages 6-13:
“Walking away from an uncomfortable conversation online isn’t mean. It’s smart. Be smart.”
Parents, Avoid Online Predators with These Steps
Parents can decrease a ton of predatory risk with some simple steps:
- Be gently curious about their online activity. You might learn a ton about them at the same time!
- Know which apps are on your kid’s phone. Ask to see them from time to time. Understand how each works. We’ve done so much research for you! If needed, turn off the Apple App or Google Play Store for greater control.
- Follow their social media accounts. Kids who use social media are at greater risk of being targeted by online predators. Why? Because the interaction is easy and the features enable strangers to make contact. Oh, one note here -> don’t secretly follow their social media accounts. Be open with them about this. If they push back, talk to them about your concerns. Can they come up with another way to assure you that everything is ok? At PYE, we love to give kids agency where possible (control, joint ownership) so that they learn responsibility. You’ll just have to feel this out – it’s your kid – you know them best.
- Be lovingly direct. Ask them straight up if anyone has ever contacted them or maybe if their friends have ever experienced anything. Then do this -> just listen.
- Set accounts to private. Set parental controls when possible. For example, set Instagram to private. Or, on Roblox, turn off chat. Visit our /app page for everything.
- Keep devices out of private places. No bedrooms.
- Keep device activity limited at night. All the trolls come out at night. And most risky behaviors feel easier at night. Whether you’re age 14 or 40.
- Be observant. Engaged. Informed. If you notice any changes in your child’s behavior, then please dig in. We had one engaged dad who discovered his daughter being pursued inappropriately through the Fitbit app because he was paying attention (here’s our Facebook post).
- (repeated because it’s so important) Give your child permission to walk away. Does your child know how to walk away from a nice predator?
At Protect Young Eyes, we tell kids who suspect they might be talking to a stranger/tricky people to PUT IT DOWN. TELL SOMEONE. Two steps! It’s that simple.
How to React if a Predator Contacts Your Child
If you determine that something inappropriate has occurred, like the father who discovered the Fitbit activity above, here are steps to take:
- Reiterate with your child that he/she did nothing wrong. Don’t let shame kick in. You’re there to help. If necessary, punish later, but not at first. Lead with grace.
- Determine if other friends might be at risk. This means you might have to contact your parents.
- Save evidence. Browsing history, comments, emails -> get screenshots and keep copies.
- Block and report the predator.
- Consider contacting law enforcement. If the predator solicited sex, sent inappropriate photos, asked for inappropriate photos (nudes), or made threats, it’s possible a crime was committed. Contact law enforcement.
Stop Online Predators with Bark
Are you interested in having greater insight into your child’s online activity, thereby, decreasing predator risk? Especially for those who love social media. Bark is one of the best platforms we’ve tested. Their smart algorithm looks for concerning words and phrases and alerts parents of anything out of the ordinary. We trust them and we think you should, too!
What if I have more questions? How can I stay up to date?
Two actions you can take!
- Subscribe to our tech trends newsletter, the PYE Download. About every 3 weeks, we’ll share what’s new, what the PYE team is up to, and a message from Chris.
- Ask your questions in our private parent community called The Table! It’s not another Facebook group. No ads, no algorithms, no asterisks. Just honest, critical conversations and deep learning! For parents who want to “go slow” together. Become a member today!
*There are affiliate links throughout this post because we’ve tested and trust a small list of parental control solutions. Our work saves you time! If you decide that you agree with us, then we may earn a small commission, which does nothing to your price. Enjoy!
Chris McKenna, Founder: A man with never-ending energy when it comes to fighting for the safety and protection of children. Chris practices his internet safety tips on his four amazing children and is regularly featured on news, radio, and podcasts for his research. His 2019 US Senate Judiciary Committee testimony was the catalyst for draft legislation and ongoing discussion that could radically change online child protection laws and earned PYE the NCOSE Dignity Defense Alert Award in 2020. The PYE team has performed over 1,700 presentations at schools, churches, and nonprofits and was featured in the Childhood 2.0 movie. Other loves include running, spreadsheets, nature, and candy.