What is the best way to teach about stranger danger in a digital world?
When it comes to our kids hanging out in online spaces, it seems the often dragged out ‘beware of strangers’ teaching, is not always going to be the best method to help kids ascertain bad behaviours. Especially as they get older and spend much time in and amongst all manner of strangers who are not necessarily people to be avoided at all costs.
Stranger danger in itself is kind of a weird concept. Every day we meet strangers and we don’t have reason to be afraid of them. We would not be afraid of the shopkeeper, the person who walks past us on our way to school and smiles and says ‘hello’. We don’t have cause for our kids to fear the bus driver etc. Because everyday we encounter people who are strange to us, but who in no way wish to cause us any harm. And in actual fact most people are harmed by people they already know. Statistically speaking we are harmed more by those familiar than we are by those unknown.
And as we become more immersed in a life online, our exposure to strangers will also increase. And many of these strangers online will serve us well. They may be a positive new connection, someone that shares similar interests or passions, someone that motivates or inspire us. They may be someone that becomes a colleague, a friend or a partner. So we don’t want our kids to be denied access to the many wonderful connections they may make online.
We also know however, that there are some pretty horrific people that hang out in online spaces. There are certainly strangers ready to pounce on the unsuspecting and the vulnerable. There are so many willing to take advantage of others emotionally, sexually, physically or financially. We know this, as the statistics for young people being abused via online means are horrendous. The amount of money scammed by others online is enormous and growing daily. The number of sexually explicit images and video that are used for blackmail, for trading and for personal perverse satisfaction is staggering. So, yes, we know that there are many, many strangers online who are in fact dangerous and to be avoided at all cost.
So how do we keep our kids safe from the predatory behaviours of some, without cutting off their access to the many good strangers they will encounter online?
Rather than just teach stranger danger therefore, we need to teach kids to recognise the predatory behaviours of others and be alert to the signs and indications that someone does not have their best interests at heart.
Because the moment you allow your child access to a Roblox, a Fortnite, a Tik Tok or an online Minecraft, there is always the possibility that they will bump into strangers on the battlefields, in the chat rooms or amongst the private message feeds. How will they know how to handle those encounters? How will they know those interactions they can connect safely with, as opposed to those that may be unsafe?
Here are some ways we can help our kids look out for predatory behaviours and decipher the strangers they encounter online.
Look out for dodgy questions
Whilst some of these may be innocent questions, repeated questions that fish for personal information when that information is not required, should be one way of alerting us to a strangers more sinister motives.
Questions may be:
- How old are you?
- Are you a boy or girl?
- What are you wearing?
- Where do you live?
- Do you want to chat in private? Do you want to chat on a different platform?
- Do your parents check your device?
- Do you want to meet in real life?
- Can you send me a photo? Nude pic? Selfie?
We want to have conversations with our kids about why people would be asking these questions and what use is that information for someone they do not know, especially if they have no real way of knowing exactly who they are.
Teach the skills to respond
Knowing when, how and if you respond to these questions is a skill in itself. With young people, role playing these situations and giving them the actual words to use, can be a good way to alert them to best responses. For example, how could you respond if you were unsure why someone was asking you a certain question? Which questions would you ignore? Which questions would indicate a need to block that person? Delete their request? Report them to the platform? Which questions are giving away unnecessary information about me?
Obviously these questions are not always predatory but alerting kids to the type of questions to be wary of can help get them thinking about who gets information about them and why information is asked of them.
Look at your individual child
Of course some kids will likely be more vulnerable than others. Some kids have a greater natural radar for ‘dodgy’. Some kids however are more prone to find themselves amongst the bad strangers. Those who are already vulnerable may turn to the internet for friendship, connection and affection which can leave them less scrupulous in their dealings with others. There are certainly some kids therefore that need greater help and monitoring than others, both online and off, in terms of their sense of self worth and who they can trust.
Understand predatory behaviours
Whilst there can certainly be some kids more vulnerable than others, we also know that many predators are getting very clever and cunning in their dealings with young people, and the signs can sometimes be more difficult to see. Predators online work hard to win over the trust of their victims and once again they can be people that are unknown or people they already know. Some of the ways they work are to focus on building up esteem, reaching out for friendship, offering gifts or promising rewards. And then of course there is blackmailing and making kids believe they have something over them…a picture or video they threaten to share with their friends, family and followers, which can lead kids to concede to all sorts of heinous demands.
Avoid exposure when young
Now of course when we are wanting to give our kids the skills and understanding to decipher predatory behaviours, we do have to ensure they are old enough, with a developed enough brain to be able to make those decisions. And if they are not of that age yet, then yes, we do have to do what we can to avoid them coming in to contact with those strangers until they are of an age where this is realistic. So a few things we should be doing to ensure the young ones are not having to have this higher order thinking until they are ready…..
- Set up filters and settings to keep playing areas private and prevent others from gaining access to them. So make all accounts private. Turn off new friend requests etc. Visit the settings buttons on all games and apps and look at all the ways you can make them as private and locked down as possible, whilst recognise that this rarely comes with any guarantees.
- Make sure your child is playing age appropriate games.
- Don’t have devices in the bedrooms, especially at night.
- Speak to your child about the importance of not giving out personal information online.
- Have young people play in areas where you can hear any banter that may be going on.
- Don’t allow young people headphones so you can hear those chats and interactions and listen for inadvertent sharing of information.
So whilst the conversations may be hard and we don’t want them to believe the worst of everyone. We want them to know that there are many great people out there, but some pretty bad ones too. When they are young and that brain is not yet at the cognitive development needed to ascertain others behaviours we need to do what we can to avoid strangers. But as they get older and interacting with strangers becomes imminent, then we want them to have some understanding of peoples behaviours and intentions. We want them to start developing the skills to recognise and handle interactions in order to help them avoid the negative encounters and instead, enjoy those positive connections they will make.