We might not want to think about our kids dealing with creepy people online. But for many parents, it's the scariest thing about our kids' digital lives. Although only 9 percent of kids get unwanted sexual solicitation online, and only 4 percent of predators try to make offline contact, it's important to take precautions. We're not always going to be with our kids, and — as painful as it sometimes is — we can't control everything. Instead, we need to arm them with information.
We can start with safeguards such as avoiding apps that make contact with strangers easy (such as Kik and Tinder), keeping accounts private, and setting limits on where and when your teen can use a device (as in, not alone in their room at night). But the most powerful tool is becoming a guiding voice in our kids' heads. Ultimately, we need to help them find the right words to say (or type) in certain situations and recognize when they need to get help. As parents we know this takes a lot of repetition, usually until our kids roll their eyes and say, "I KNOW!" Also, it can be complicated: Teens want to be liked and belong, so positive attention from someone can be really compelling. And creepy people aren't always total strangers; sometimes your kid knows them, but then things get weird — or scary.
Here are some ideas for how to talk to kids about this tricky subject. To get the ball rolling, find five or 10 minutes when your kid is receptive (in other words, don't interrupt their favorite show and demand to talk), and tell them you want to teach them skills that are similar to being able to change a tire: They can get you out of a sticky situation. You can also frame it as something like a driving test: To use social media, they need to be able to operate it safely. Make sure to acknowledge that they might already have many of these skills, so this could be a chance to show them off. Feel free to run through this script verbatim or riff -- whatever works for you!
Ask your teen: What should you do if someone you don't know contacts you online?
- I wouldn't respond to them at all.
- If they were persistent, I'd type, "I don't want to talk to you. Do not contact me again."
- If they continued, I'd block them and report their user information and wouldn't respond anymore.
Follow-up: But what if they seem harmless and nice? Or what if they seem to know things about you?
- It's easy to find out things about people online and seem to know them, so that's no reason to chat.
- Some creepers ask for pictures and personal information right away, and others can seem nice at first. Either way, this is someone I don't know, so I don't have to worry about being polite.
Follow-up: What if they just want one picture, your Snapchat handle, or your phone number so you can text each other? I mean, they don't know where you live, right? How dangerous could that be?
- When anyone starts asking for pictures or personal information, it's a red flag, and I would always say no.
- If I say yes once, it just opens the door to asking for more pics and more info.
- Once someone has my phone number, they can call me anytime, anywhere, and it's also easier to get more info about me, so no way.
Follow-up: What if they say they already have an embarrassing picture, and if you don't send more, they'll share that one with everyone?
- I know I haven't shared anything too embarrassing, so that kind of threat wouldn't work.
- Even if they had a picture I didn't mean for them to have, if I sent another one, the demands would never stop.
- One chance for embarrassment is better than sending more pictures. That would only make the problem worse.
Follow-up: What if your friends think it's funny to chat with them just as a prank?
- I can tell them that it seems safe and funny when we're all together, but this person might try again when one of us is alone.
- Since we don't know anything about them, it's safest not to share anything, even as a joke.
- We can just find something else to do instead!
Takeaways: Online predators will often feel out a situation before asking for more information. If you shut it down early, they're likely to give up. Anything you share with them keeps the conversation going; it doesn't help end it. Sometimes they'll say they already have something embarrassing to blackmail someone into sending pictures (sometimes called "sextortion"), but sending more never stops the harassment; it only increases it. And though it may seem like harmless fun in the moment, there's a real person behind that other screen whose intentions aren't good, so that's not a person you want to tease or make angry.
Ask your teen: But what if this person really seems to know you or one of your friends? What should you do then?
- The safest approach is, if I don't know someone in real life, I don't talk to them online.
- I can ask the person for his full name and then check with the friend to see if it's legit.
- I can blame my parent/guardian and say that it's against the rules to chat with strangers.
- If they continue, I can just stop responding. If they keep going, I can block them (and now it's confirmed that they're really a creeper).
Takeaways: Since teens often make contact online before they do in real life, there could really be a safe friend of a friend on the other end of the keyboard. It could also be that your teen is intrigued by the sudden attention. Though it could be totally safe, encouraging too much online contact without knowing who's really on the other end can lead to a lot of shared personal information and false intimacy, which can make a teen let down their guard. Also, predators will sometimes do research and get information from social media profiles to establish trust, so it may seem like they know you, but they don't. This is also a good reason for teens to think about their digital footprints and the pieces of themselves they share online. Teens who share sexy pictures or lots of personal information online are more at risk to be approached by online predators.
Ask your teen: What if the person really does know you, but you aren't really interested in being in contact online?
- I can shut it down gently by saying something like, "Hey, I don't want to chat online, but I'll see you at school. Have a good night!"
- If they keep trying, I can just stop responding, and if they won't stop, I can block them.
Takeaways: It's hard (and great) for your kid to practice setting boundaries. And while it's nice to be polite if someone knows you in real life, you don't have to be nice if they aren't respecting your limits. It's better to block than to be nice and better to be safe than to be sweet.
Ask your teen: What if the person knows you and you are interested -- but then it doesn't feel right?
- I have to listen to my gut and say I have to go.
- After I'm offline, then I can take a minute to figure out what made me uncomfortable: Were they too familiar, acting like we're best friends? Asking personal questions? Asking for pictures?
Takeaways: Sometimes, the most important and trustworthy defense is our instinct, so if something doesn't feel right, trust yourself, even if that means ending online contact with someone you like. Anyone asking for pictures (especially posed or sexy ones) is a huge red flag, and it's best to go offline to avoid the pressure so you can stop and think.
Ask your teen: What if you don't know this person, but they're super nice and show caring at a time when you really need it?
- Even though it might be tempting to talk to someone who's separate from my problems, it's not a good idea to open up to someone who might not have my best interests at heart.
- If I really need someone to talk to, I need to find someone I can truly trust, even if it's a friend of the family or a teacher. Talking to a stranger online might feel good at first but then just cause more problems in the end.
Takeaways: Tweens and teens are at a sensitive age when they want to be more independent from their parents but also crave positive attention. This combination can make them more vulnerable. Make sure your kid has positive connections outside the family and people to talk to — and get support from — during these years when they sometimes push you away.
Ask your teen: What if you feel like you've gotten to know someone really well online and they ask to meet in real life?
- No way! I learned about "stranger danger" when I was little, and I know this isn't safe.
- Getting to know someone online is different from meeting up with that person in real life, alone. They could be totally different in person.
- Adults do this all the time with dating apps, so it sort of feels the same, but I know there are creepy people out there, and I don't want to get myself into a situation where I'm suddenly in danger. It's just not worth it.
Follow up: It's not safe to meet someone you don't know. But if you were going to do that, what do you think are the safest ways?
- I don't think I'd ever feel safe doing this. — especially girls and women — get hurt, and I'd rather play it safe and just hang out with people I know face-to-face.
- Meet during the day in a public place and bring a friend. Make sure other friends know where you are and who you're meeting. Share the person's name, phone number, or whatever other information I have with someone else.
Takeaways: We send kids confusing messages about talking and meeting online: We share personal information on the internet all the time and use dating apps, sites, and chat rooms to eventually meet strangers. Also, tweens and teens who are in emotional distress are especially vulnerable because they crave positive attention and connection, so if you notice your kid withdrawing, being secretive, and hiding online interactions, it's time to ask some questions. While it's fairly rare for predators to solicit contact offline, it does happen, so it's important to be aware of your kid's connections and activities.
Ask your teen: When is it time to ask me or another adult for help?
- I think anytime things feel creepy I'll want to tell you just in case.
- I know how to block and report someone if I need to, but if someone won't stop bothering me or if I feel scared, I'll ask for help.