It’s plain to see that the world is rapidly changing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic—not just on a global scale, but on a personal level. As schools and businesses close, families are exploring what it means to stay home and try to continue life remotely through various technologies. As students transition to learning from home using amazing online resources to continue their education, we as parents need to be vigilant and aware of our kids’ social media and internet activity. In times like these, technology can be an incredible gift, but the internet also has a dark side. For your children, increased time online means increased risk of being targeted by predators who are taking advantage of the uptick in kids’ online activity. The potential for exposure to pornography is also increased as more time is spent on electronic devices.
Predation is more common and pervasive than any of us would like to think. In a social experiment, 37 year old Roo Powell, Special Projects Team Lead for BARK (a social media monitoring app) created online personas for multiple fictitious teen and tween girls. Her 11 year old persona “Bailey” was contacted by 52 men in just one week, with most of the messages and requests being explicitly sexual in nature. What made an 11-year-old girl a prime target for online predators? Did she post selfies in revealing clothing? Did she use suggestive or explicit language, or invite older men to engage with her? No, “Bailey’s” only invitation to these predators was her vulnerability. Predators use online platforms like social media and video games to search for young people who share information that exposes a vulnerability. Those vulnerabilities could be their age, their self-esteem level, the nature of their relationship with their parents or peers, or emotional/physical needs. Predators scour popular social media apps like Instagram and SnapChat, but are also waiting on more obscure, niche apps such as Kik or LuckyChat, to begin talking to new youth. Predators can also use video games, in which interaction and live chats are available, to interact with youth. They start conversations, provide in-game favors as a way to build rapport and trust, then ask for or send inappropriate videos or images.
Recruiters and traffickers take the abuse one step further: in addition to establishing a relationship that becomes sexually explicit and abusive in nature, they further coerce and manipulate the child to ultimately traffick them for sex. The grooming process can happen subtly over time. By the end, the child no longer feels they are engaging with a stranger. They are talking to their friend who has won their trust.
In addition to potential predators and traffickers, children can also encounter pornography online. When Fight the New Drug (an anti-pornography campaign) asked their Twitter followers at what age they first saw pornography, some people responded that they had seen their first video or image as early as 6 years old. Others responses ranged from 8 to 13 years old. The earlier that children have access to cell phones, tablets, or other technologies with internet access, the more likely they are to encounter porn. It can come across the screen as a pop-up, be linked to other pages, show up on their social media feed, or even be shown/sent to them by a friend. Because porn tends to be a taboo topic, many children will hide the fact that they have seen pornography and instead of reaching out for help, potentially develop an unwanted compulsion or addiction.
But just as we the public are empowered to know how we can slow the spread of this virus, we also have the ability to ensure our kids stay safe while they navigate life online.
Here are some ways you can help keep your kids safe while they use technology during social isolation:
Have conversations with your kids now about the potential dangers of the internet. The internet is not the problem. The people who pretend to be safe while having ulterior motives are the problem. Share with them that they don’t need to be afraid of the internet or of people, but like any tool, it’s important to know how to use technology safely. Chatting with people they do not know in real life is a dangerous use of the internet. Highlight the importance of not sharing personal information like their location, school, schedule, etc. Let them know that if they see something or receive a message that makes them uncomfortable in any way, they should come talk to you. You will be there to help – you won’t be mad. Help them understand that people who have good intentions toward them will not ask them to keep secrets.
As a family, establish guidelines for media use during the next few weeks of staying home. Whether it’s no one is alone in a room with their phone or computer, no headphones while playing interactive video games or no media after 8 p.m., together decide how you as a family will handle the additional down time. Creating a family contract is a helpful way to ensure everyone is on the same page. To learn how to create your own, click here.
Utilize software and apps such as Covenant Eyes or BARK to help monitor and protect online activity. Taking measures to utilize additional resources or altering settings to ensure all downloaded apps must be approved by a parent will allow for added accountability and increased supervision.
If you do discover your child has been talking to a potentially dangerous person, has received inappropriate messages or has unwanted access to porn, DO NOT panic. Remain calm and be a safe person with whom your child can talk. Don’t delete photos or images as these could be important evidence of illegal activity and could be used to protect your child; do report all illegal activity to law enforcement.
Roo Powell wrote of the BARK app, “Technology has changed and so too have the methods by which predators find, communicate with, and harm children. If they can use technology to abuse children, we can use the same technology to help stop their crimes.” As we experience the gift that social media and technology are in the coming weeks of increased social isolation, we can be confident that we have the resources and support necessary to navigate these changes safely. Below is a list of resources and articles that can help!