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Coercion, trolling and abuse: Keep your children safe when they’re meeting people online

| 22 Mar 2022

From predatory tactics to online bullying: tips for keeping your kids safe.

Children and teenagers spend hours interacting with others on the internet. But social media and online gaming also give opportunities to those who want to harm your child. Such platforms allow anyone to access large online communities more or less anonymously, attracting bullies, trolls and sexual predators. If you want to do something for your child’s protection, you should acknowledge the risks and learn more about these groups, as well as their motivations and methods.


When Jodie from Australia was 15 years old, she was contacted by an unknown man on Facebook Messenger, asking if she needed support. The man, posing as someone three years older than Jodie, was 24-year-old Ashley Willats. Jodie was flattered to receive attention from an older boy and, being someone who seeks comfort, gradually accepted the communication as normal.


“He would always treat me like a princess. He would say stuff that I want to hear, and obviously he knew what young girls want to hear as well, considering he’s done it multiple times,” she later told news.com.au.


Soon, the conversation changed tone. When Willats started sending her explicit images of himself and asking her to do the same, she obliged. Eventually, when the teenage girl didn’t want to communicate with him anymore, he turned to her cousin Jess, threatening to release Jodie’s nude photos if he wasn’t in contact with her within 24 hours. 


After Jess and Jodie discussed the situation with their parents, the case eventually ended well. Together with Jess’s mother, the girls did a bit of detective work online to learn more about their online predator and contacted the police, who eventually tracked Willats down. It turned out he had contacted at least 11 victims, and the youngest target of his sexual advances was just 12 years old. He was found guilty of several offenses and sentenced to prison. 


Sexual predators: When new online friends aren’t who they seem


Sexual predators like Willats get in touch with children online to coerce them into sexual activity. They use platforms like instant messaging, social networks, and even online gaming to remain anonymous and often pose as someone younger. Teens are generally more at risk because they are curious and want to be accepted. They often talk to the predator willingly, despite feeling it’s dangerous. Here are three of the psychological tactics predators usually use.


Grooming is establishing an emotional connection with the objective of sexual abuse. Predators gradually build a relationship with children to gain their trust. They can do that by giving gifts and compliments, acting kindly, or showing that they understand the child’s insecurities. Once children’s inhibitions are lowered, they are more likely to be coerced into doing what the predator asks. That may be to share more about themselves and their lives or even send their nude pictures, both of which can later be used against them. 


Predators often use a method of collecting bits of specific personal information about the child called fishing – letting them establish a more complete picture of their victim. For example, they learn from the child that a storm occurred at the park near their home one day. Comparing that with online data, the predator is one step closer to determining where the child lives. 


Once predators have bits and pieces of information about the child, either collected from direct messaging or their observations, they can use that for further manipulation, such as mirroring. As the name suggests, this is a way of mimicking what they see in their victim. Groomers may pretend to be from the same age group as the child or share similar interests, likes, or worries -- anything that helps them reinforce an emotional connection. 


You can learn more about online predators and grooming in an earlier article on the topic.


Bullying and trolling: Hurting others online is easy


Unfortunately, the online environment gives ample opportunities to those who bully others, are deliberately offensive, and instigate conflict in the real world. The anonymity and lack of direct response cause such people to lose restraint. Your child may easily become the victim of their actions. Let’s look more closely at harmful electronic communication.


What is cyberbullying? It includes: Writing offensive texts, spreading rumors and false accusations, threatening or blackmail, outing the victim’s private or intimate information, harassing and stalking, or pretending to be someone else. As in the real world, these actions are usually directed at one individual.


On the other hand, trolls cause disruption online, create conflict, and generally provoke others. They get a sense of satisfaction from strong reactions to their offensive, irritating or false posts. They knowingly make constructive, positive discussions impossible. 


When bullies and trolls post something on a social network, they generally don’t get an immediate reaction, which gives them a sense of impunity. This is reinforced when they use fake or anonymous profiles, so they can’t be traced back to their posts – making them feel they’re above the law. 


Unlike saying something face-to-face and seeing an immediate reaction, writing hateful or ridiculing comments and posts online reduces the perceived need to empathize with others. Without such inhibitions, bullies and trolls act like dogs behind a fence barking at passers-by. 


When cyberbullying is directed at a single victim, what makes things even worse is the group dynamic. The size of the crowd of witnesses who see the post is impossible to estimate, which elevates the victim’s anxiety. The content can spread fast, widening the number of people who know about the bullying but do not act. 


Because users are aware that no one sees them reading the post, they often don’t feel responsible or involved in the situation to the point of actually fighting against injustice by speaking up. Again, this makes the situation harder on the victim.


How can you keep your children safe?


Look for signs that something is wrong. Be aware of any signals indicating that your children might be victims of cyberbullying or in contact with someone who may cause them harm. These are some of the questions to ask yourself from our blog post on the topic: Do they seem emotionally upset or have frequent mood swings? Have they suddenly deleted their social media profile? Are they pretending to be sick to avoid school? 


Similarly, any changes in mood or behavior and lack of interest in family or friends may mean that something isn’t right – even though it may not necessarily be connected to the causes mentioned above. 


Stay up to date on their online activities. You needn’t be intrusive; just make sure you have a general sense of how they spend their time on their devices. Keep up with the latest trends that shape your children’s lives in the digital world. Do any of your children follow an influencer? You should follow them too. Are they using a new multiplayer game? Let them explain the concept to you. That allows you to react to what’s topical and maybe even have conversations that help bridge the generation gap. Remember that listening and showing genuine interest may be more important than talking and instructing. But ideally, aim for a balance between the two.


Cultivate a trusting relationship with your child. When youngsters feel that they can confide in their parents about whatever is on their minds, they have a safe space to rely on. When this is not the case, kids can be more susceptible to falling victim to someone who may want to fill that role in your stead. What is more, a warm and open relationship enables more honest conversations, one of the greatest tools you have as a parent. Just as you want to prepare your children for life in the real world, you need to give them the instruments to safely navigate the online world too.


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