While a parent’s worst fear with their child’s online activity may be that their baby will fall prey to an online predator that will convince their child to meet, most experts say the occurrence of that is rare.
But when it does happen, it can be dangerous, said Sue Dowling, a forensic computer specialist with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations.
A recent study published in the medical journal “Pediatrics” reported that out of 251 adolescent girls the study followed for a year, 30 percent reported meeting people offline.
In an informal survey of seven Rockdale high school students, three admitted to meeting someone that they met online. Others said they knew of people or had friends that had met people offline or had made fake profiles online. Websites they frequented included Facebook, Chatroulette, and Omegle.
One high schooler who gave the name Sade said she had met a guy that she initially thought was cool. “He was not what I expected. He was actually very, very weird,” she said. Her parents had never warned her about the dangers of meeting strangers on the internet. She also admitted to taking on other identities and personas online. “Who doesn’t?” she said.
Another teen, Angel, said she was terrified of the stories her mom told her and had never met anyone from online.
Another teen named Sarah said she had met up with a girl she had known for three years through an online forum about an author. For that meeting, her mother was very cautious and made sure the other girl’s parents were present.
Dowling, who helped develop the Georgia Cyber-Safety Initiative for schools, pointed out that meeting up with a stranger from online was not a very common risk that kids face. “But it is one of the most dangerous,” she said. Other online dangers, such as cyberbulling, are much more common.
“Most kids are not at risk for this,” she pointed out. “But there are those who will fall prey to that.”
Specifically, those include kids who are willing to speak to strangers online, kids who are risk takers in general and kids who happen to be in a vulnerable place emotionally or socially.
Often, an online predator will start out befriending a child, using information revealed through the child’s profile, if there’s no privacy setting.
“They can almost become a soul mate to the child. They can portray themselves to being interested in the same things as the child,” said Dowling. “They start working towards isolating them… trying to get them to confide in them, not in their family members.”
Some might start sending gifts or even send a phone that they pay for that the parents might not know about.
Active, involved parenting helps address risky behavior in general, not just risky online behavior, she said.
“The fact is, kids tend to be really smart online. Kids are generally doing well, but they do make mistakes and you need to take the opportunity to teach children not to be gullible.”
If the child does want to meet someone offline, make sure they don’t meet them alone.
“I tell them, ‘Don’t be flattered if someone wants to meet. If it’s someone that’s up and up, they’re willing to meet you with someone you can trust.’”
Rachael Long, the STARS project specialist at Rockdale County Public Schools, took the GBI’s cybersafety training course and has facilitated local events and workshops about cybersafety to students, parents and the community.
“One of the most important things I tell students is to slow down,” said Long by email. “Kids are so quick to send a text, accept a friend request, take a picture, etc. and they don't think about the consequences. And teens can be so gullible. They just don't understand the dangers lurking on the Internet.”
She continued, “Of course, we tell students to never ever meet an online acquaintance in person. The problem with this is there are so many dating sites and other sites that make this seem okay that kids don't always take us seriously.”
What can parents do?
For starters, Long advised that parents have all the passwords and usernames to their child’s profiles and phones. And she advised they read their children’s texts.
“This isn't always popular advice, especially with teens, but they need someone looking over their shoulder and making sure the people they are friends with really are who they say they are.”
To that end, parents have to be knowledgeable, she said. “Just because they don't like Facebook or don't understand it doesn't mean they shouldn't learn. Adults need to stay informed and up-to-date with current issues. “
Dowling recommended that parents use a technology policy or gaming or internet policy and establish rules around the use of technology.
“For example, at a certain point at night, we collect all the cell phones" in her household, she said. That helps avoid risky communication but also helps the child’s sleep not to be interrupted during the night with text messages and emails.
She also highly recommended profile settings to be set on private and for the child to keep in mind that what they have on their profile could impact their ability to get jobs or scholarships.
However, any discussion about internet safety should be integrated into everyday discussions, not separated as a specific discussion, said Dowling, because kids don't see the communication modes as being separate.
But in the end, the best advice for parents is the most simple advice – be involved in your child’s life, said Long.
“Talk to them. Eat dinner with them. Spend time with them. That way, if they are ever faced with a difficult situation, whether it is online or not, hopefully they will talk with you about it. We can't expect them to come to us with a problem if we're not there for them every day.”
Some websites with sample policies and information about youth, parenting and technology are below.