Stranger Danger: How to Talk About Online Predators With Your Kids
**This post was updated on January 5, 2023.**
If you’ve read Sloane Ryan’s Medium piece, you were probably shocked and disgusted by the prevalence of online predation that exists today. Since publishing her story, we’ve received thousands of messages from people asking how to help fight this epidemic, as well as what advice we can give on how to talk about online predators with their kids and help protect them from being targeted.
Bark’s Special Projects Team is uniquely positioned to provide families with firsthand knowledge of how online predation occurs. Below you’ll find real-life examples and lessons we’ve learned from our interactions with online predators so you can gain a better understanding of the issue. It’s our hope that this knowledge will help you start a conversation with your child. Productive and concrete discussions about how predators operate in the digital age can help keep them safe both online and in real life.
Stranger Danger: Predators Can Make Contact Almost Anywhere
Have you ever heard of the term Stranger Danger? Stranger Danger is a phrase used to educate children about the potential dangers of interacting with strangers. It is very important to teach your children to distinguish between a safe and unsafe situation, nowadays more than ever, with the rise in online predators. Video game message boards, the comment sections on YouTube and TikTok videos, and Reddit threads are all places where predators have been known to lurk. But we also know that predators can be found in surprising places that many parents wouldn’t even imagine — like the FitBit community boards and chatrooms within Bible apps. It’s important that your kids understand there’s a possibility that bad people can talk to them in their apps and games, even if those platforms are not known for predation, and that they should always let you know if someone unfamiliar strikes up a conversation.
Abuse Can Happen Entirely Online
The emotional damage that predators inflict can happen from across your city, from another country, or even from the other side of the world. Kids can be subjected to online child exploitation, overt manipulation, and sometimes even violent threats from people who are trying to intimidate them into doing what they say.
It’s easy to think that nothing bad can happen when your child is under your watch. The painful reality is that kids can be abused online, even when they’re just one room over. Make sure your child knows that anytime someone makes them feel uncomfortable online, they should tell you immediately. If they are exposed to something troubling, they might need help processing their feelings about what happened.
Talk About Online Predators and How They Operate
It can be hard to acknowledge the reality of online predators — and even harder to accept that your own child might be at risk. But avoiding the topic prevents kids from learning what they need to know to be prepared in case it happens. No matter how young your child is, it’s crucial to have ongoing conversations about their devices, how they use them, who they’re talking to, and the things they see online. Make check-ins commonplace so that they become a part of your family’s day-to-day life. These can become regular opportunities for your child to tell you if something is wrong.
Once you and your child have talked over the basics, you can start explaining how predators operate. Talk to them about online child exploitation and other means a predator might use. Some want to receive explicit photos from kids — others want to send them. Some initiate relationships with innocent-sounding questions, taking their time to create a seemingly harmless bond. Some warn kids to watch out for “bad people” online before doing terrible things themselves. Some offer to guide their victims through difficult times and use that foundation of trust to manipulate them into incredibly abusive relationships.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of horrible ways that predators can interact with kids, but giving them age-appropriate ideas of what methods predators use will help them recognize potentially abusive relationships as they develop.
Sexual Abuse is NEVER a Child’s Fault
Children are minors — legally, intellectually, emotionally, and physically — and can’t give consent to any sort of relationship with an adult. The worst predators are masters of manipulation, and they’re always the ones who are in control, no matter how the relationship is framed. Your child shouldn't be ashamed of what they experience because of a predator. Even if a child initiates a conversation with an adult, they’re not at fault for where the conversation goes. Let them know that if an adult is communicating with them online — no matter what is being discussed — they are not responsible for what happens.
Tell Your Child You’ve Always Got Their Back
The single most important thing you can do to help your child is to make sure they know they can tell you absolutely anything — no matter how afraid, embarrassed, or upset they might be. When kids know they can come to you for help without fear of being judged or punished, they’re more likely to confide in you if they ever find themselves in a situation where they need your help.
If your child does tell you they’ve been communicating with an online predator, it’s extremely important to put their safety and comfort ahead of your own. This conversation will be emotional for both of you, but you need to show your child that you’re there for them and that they can trust you to help protect them.
Monitoring Can Provide a Digital Safety Net
Raising kids in the age of smartphones is uncharted territory for today’s parents. Even with open and ongoing conversations, strict parental controls and privacy settings, and all of the advice in the world on how to talk about online predators, kids are still at risk of encountering digital dangers. One more thing families can do to help keep their kids safe online is to monitor online activities for potential issues.
Bark’s award-winning service monitors texts, email, YouTube, and 30+ apps and social media platforms for signs of sexual predators, adult content, cyberbullying, depression, suicidal thoughts, drug use, threats of violence, and more. Try Bark for free today!
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Bark is a comprehensive online safety solution that empowers families to monitor content, manage screen time, and filter websites to help protect their kids online. Our mission is to give parents and guardians the tools they need to raise kids in the digital age.