How easy is it for predators to find your kids on social media?

Internet_Predator_cartoon

The ‘monster in the closet’ looks a bit different today that it did when I was 8 years old.  I was just positive that the bad guy from Dukes of Hazard or CHIPS was lurking behind my closet door.  At the risk of dating myself, we only had a TV back in the late 70’s. Yes, ONE.  And it was in the family room.  And my brother and I were the ‘remote control’ devices who would have to walk up the the TV and turn the dial to change channels.  And we didn’t choose what to watch- that was up to our parents.  Many of you reading this can relate.

Now, imagine if you were anywhere from 8 to 11 today…

Your exposure to all sorts of media just exploded in comparison to my generation.  Add to that your new found freedom of going online with any one of those devices.  Add to that the gaming sites and social media sites that all of your friends are talking about at school and interacting on.

According to a compelling infographic at www.brandwatch.com about social media parenting…”Today 16% of 8-11 year olds own at least five media devices.  With the digital world constantly advancing, there is no way to keep them off the web, even if you want to.” 

Now, back to being a parent.  A statistic from the same infographic referenced above says that the same age group of kids (8 to 11) are spending an average of 9.2 hours/week using the internet.  That’s 9.2 hours per week of potential exposure.  Think of it as your child walking alone on a street for 9.2 hours per week.  You think they’d know what do if approached by a stranger, because they’ve been trained and taught since they were old enough to comprehend.  But, I can assure you from a recent horrific personal experience with my 15 year old daughter almost being abducted while jogging- strangers can be master manipulators who are are slick and cunning.  And, if you are talking to your kids about online safety- that’s awesome.  But, you need to be talking about it regularly, because when and if they are approached, everything you’ve drilled into them may go out the window in the heat of the moment- like it did for my daughter who knew better than to approach when beckoned by a man in a van that rolled up next to her supposedly in search of a ‘lost dog’.   In this case, we discovered later that we simply got lucky.

So, what does all of this online opportunity and exposure add up to?? You got it- a potentially perfect storm…or perhaps the perfectly ‘hidden’ playground for the digital bad guy aka sexual predator.

Who are they?

Because the online world offers a sense of anonymity, it is relatively easy for child predators to find their prey.  Believe it or not, there isn’t necessarily a mold or stereotype.  There are seemingly ‘normal’ people who have been caught enticing kids. They often target children who are engaging in risky online behavior.  However, children who don’t understand privacy settings or how to turn off location settings before posting pictures online can also fall victim.

How do they do it?

I’m by no means an expert on cyber crime, but I am an engaged parent who has done the research and wants to pass along what I’ve discovered.  This doesn’t BEGIN to scratch the surface, but I think it’s helpful to be aware of some of ways these hideous predators lure kids.

Grooming

I’m not talking about making my Golden Retriever look beautiful.  Rather, this is what it’s called when predators begin interacting with a child (or children) by identifying and leveraging that child’s vulnerabilities.  This is a process that can happen over time, with the goal being for the predator to gain the child’s trust.  There are some great sites to learn more about this process.  I highly recommend checking out www.netsmartz.org/predators or www.familysafecomputers.org/ for more detail on ‘grooming’ and some of the warning signs.

Impersonating

You know the stories about the middle aged guy who pretends to be a 12 year old girl, or a 15 year old boy, or any age to make the child think they are interacting with someone their age.  The entire time, there is a goal in mind to get this child to meet privately offline or do something inappropriate online.  There is absolutely NOTHING good that can happen as a result of these types of online relationships, yet they are very real and happen every day.

Exploiting

So, those cute pictures that your 9-year-old posted on Instagram last week?  Did you make sure that the location settings were off?  Did you make SURE that your child has not listed ANY of his/her personal information?  Have you established the privacy settings on Instagram so that the general public can’t follow him/her?  Pictures can be downloaded, changed and spread around.  A key reason to establish a rule early on about not allowing followers you don’t know.  And, when the average kiddo has roughly 78 followers they’ve never met?  This should be a concern.

How can we protect our kids from them?

Did you know that 83% of parents trust their children to use the internet safely? (Same Infographic from www.brandwatch.com) Yikes!!  Are you one of those parents who jokes about how much more your kids know about the internet than you do?  You aren’t alone- we are all ‘electronic parents’ trying to learn how to get in front of the curve and be aware and knowledgable of what today’s digital playground looks like.

Here are 5 basic, common sense things you can do to not only protect your children, but to show them you are aware of and familiar with where they and ‘hanging out’ online- and what goes on there:

  1. Get up to speed on where your kids are spending their time.  What apps are on their phones?  What are they doing on the computer or tablet?  Read my last post about the top 15 apps kids are using today- and learn about why they are one these apps and how they use them.  Which leads me to #2…
  2. Talk to them.  I know that our kids know a heck of a lot more than most of us (as parents) about the social media apps they use, BUT, they are still our kids and rely on us for direction and boundaries to be set.  Get them to tell you about different apps or games, what they like or don’t like, why, who else is using them, etc etc.  It’s a conversation- that simple.  But, it needs to be a regular conversation.
  3. Warn them.  As much as we train and program our kids to not talk to strangers- this absolutely applies here but in a bigger way.  Strangers shouldn’t be following them or interacting with them for any reason.  Define what a stranger is and what it should mean to them.
  4. Privacy settings.  Check ALL of their devices to make sure the location settings aren’t engaged.  Check all of their apps to ensure they have chosen the maximum privacy settings available in the app.
  5. Friend and follow.  This doesn’t prevent cyberbullying or give you the ability to delete a harmful post or interaction, but staying on top of the basic interactions and chatter at least gives you a pulse for how your children are interacting.

So, when my mom or dad promised me when I went to bed as a child that they had checked my closet and that there were no monsters waiting to pounce on me when they shut the door, I felt a little better.  A little more secure and a little less worried.  I felt safe in my house, knowing they were keeping the ‘bad guys’ out.  To say things have changed a little is a ridiculous understatement; however, as electronic parents we have some more places to check and much bigger closets to look in today than we did 25 or 30 years ago.

 

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