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. The fact that such platforms allow anyone to access large online communities more or less anonymously attracts 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, their motivations and their methods.
When Jodie from Australia was 15 years old, out of the blue, she was contacted by an unknown man on Facebook Messenger, asking if she needs support. The man, posing as someone three years older than Jodie, was in fact 24-year-old Ashley Willats. She was flattered to receive attention from an older boy and, being someone who seeks comfort, gradually accepted their communication as normal.
“He would always treat me like a princess. He would say stuff that I wanted to hear and obviously he knew what young girls wanted 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 was not allowed to contact her in the next 24 hours.
The case eventually had a good ending, after the girls talked the whole situation over with their parents. They did a bit of detective work online, together with Jess’s mother, to learn more about their online predator, and contacted the police, who were eventually able to track Willats down. It turned out he had contacted at least eleven victims and the youngest target of his sexual advances was just 12 years old. He was found guilty of several offences 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 with the goal of coercing them into sexual activity. They use platforms like social networks, instant messaging and even online gaming, where they can remain anonymous, often posing as someone else; usually 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, it is more likely that they can 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. Let’s say they get the information that there was a storm near the park near where the child lives on a specific day. Comparing that with data available online, they are one step closer to determining the area 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, share similar interests, likes or worries; simply anything that helps them reinforce an emotional connection.
Bullying and trolling: hurting others online is easy
The online environment unfortunately gives ample opportunities to those who tend to 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. Any child may easily become the victim of their actions, so let’s look more closely at harmful electronic communication.
What are the different natures of cyberbullying? Writing offensive texts, spreading rumors and false accusations, threatening and blackmail, outing the victim’s private or intimate information, humiliating and ridicule, harassing and stalking, or pretending to be someone else in order to harm someone are all types of cyberbullying. Like in the real world, all this is usually directed at one individual.
Trolls, on the other hand, 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 don’t get an immediate reaction, which gives them a sense of impunity. Even more so when they use fake or anonymous profiles, so they can’t be traced back to their posts – and feel to be above the law.
Also, unlike saying something face-to-face and seeing an immediate reaction, writing hateful or ridiculing comments and posts is far easier, because the online environment may reduce the perceived need to empathise with others. Without such inhibitions, bullies and trolls, like dogs behind a fence barking at passers-by, don’t hold themselves back.
When cyberbullying is directed at a single victim, what makes things even worse is the group dynamics of such a situation. 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 so quickly, heightening 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. The group’s ignorance, or worse, encouragement of the attacker, again makes the situation harder on the victim.
How can you keep your children safe?
Look for signs that something is wrong. Simply try to 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 behaviour, as well as lack of interest in family or friends may mean that something isn’t right – even though it may not necessarily be connected to the above-mentioned causes.
Be in the know when it comes to 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. Try to be up to date with the latest trends that shape your children’s life in the digital world. Do any of your children follow an influencer? Follow them too. A new multiplayer game? Let them explain the concept to you. That gives you an opportunity to react to what’s topical, and maybe get into interesting conversations with them, share your point of view, and build a bridge across 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 with whatever is on their mind, they are provided with a healthy perspective and a safe ground they can always rely on. When this is not the case, they are made more susceptible to falling victim to someone who may want to fill that role in your stead. What’s more, a warm and open relationship allows for more honest conversations, one of the greatest tools you have as a parent. Just like 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.
Want to learn more about online safety for kids?
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