It’s a parent’s nightmare: the thought of a stranger approaching our children online. But with all of us online so often, how do we manage the risks? And how do we teach teens to be careful when most of their experiences online may have been harmless and fun?
Young Australians have grown up online, and many of them don’t find it scary or strange to have followers or ‘friends’ they haven’t met face-to-face. Especially if these people are also in contact with the young person’s friends from school.
Studies have found that half of Australian children aged 8-17 have played multiplayer games online with strangers, and about a quarter of young Australians have chatted online in the past year with someone they haven’t met in person.
Before all the adults have a heart attack at this idea, we should stop and think about our own behaviour on social media and gaming sites. Many of us have chatted with strangers online, or even met friends or partners that way. Probably, we assumed we could handle the risks and figure out whether someone was ‘safe’ or ‘dodgy’. Maybe we were right about that – or maybe not. But we can’t be too surprised if our teens are making the same assumptions.
And it can be difficult to remind teens of the dangers when they’ve had so many experiences online that felt safe or normal. Many of the ‘strangers’ our teens chat with are just other young people, and one study done in New Zealand found that most children felt happy or neutral about the people they’d met online.
But there are still real dangers out there, and things may be getting worse. The Australian Federal Police and Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation have warned that being isolated at home during COVID-19 has put children and teens at higher risk than usual, because they are online much more, and sometimes they’re not being supervised. This raises the risk of things like grooming and sexually abusive behaviours.
What can parents do?
- Get familiar with the social media or gaming sites your teens use, including how the chat and messaging functions work, and how to block or report disturbing content.
- Set reasonable limits about tech use that work for your family – for example, no devices after 9pm, or no devices in bedrooms. Remember, you will have to practice what you preach!
- Talk to your teens. In particular:
- Regularly ask them about what’s happening online, and what they would do if something didn’t feel right. Help them rehearse saying things like “Don’t message me again” or “I don’t friend people I don’t know”.
- Encourage your teens to choose the highest privacy settings, and avoid contact with people they haven’t met in person.
- Remind them to protect their private information – eg. passwords, birthdays, phone numbers, schools, sporting clubs or pictures of their street.
- Caution your teens that if someone claims to know one of their friends or relatives, they must check with the friend or relative that they’ve actually met this person face-to-face. Some predators go to great lengths to connect online with other people in a child’s network in order to seem legit.
- Help your teens watch out for the warning signs, and make sure they know to tell a trusted adult if something seems wrong. Warning signs might include:
- “Is someone I haven’t met sending me heaps of messages?”
- “Are they asking weird or personal questions?”
- “Are they acting like we’re already best friends?”
- “Do they keep trying to chat about things that aren’t related to the game or the website?”
- “Do they ask me for pics, perhaps claiming to be from a modelling agency?”
- “Do they offer to buy me things or give me presents?”
- “Do they ask me to keep secrets?”
- “Do they pressure me or get aggressive if I don’t do what they want?”
- Be clear that if something went wrong, you would want your teens to tell you – and you would not confiscate their devices!
- Make sure they can name several other trusted adults they could talk to as well, such as a relative, sporting coach, neighbour, teacher, or Kids Helpline.
- Wherever you can, support your teens to build strong, caring, respectful friendships with other young people. Teens who are lonely and isolated can be at higher risk of being drawn into dangerous situations online. Check out these tips for helping teens and children make good friends.
- Find out more. Think U Know has great information and activities for parents to help children stay safe online. And the eSafety Commissioner and Australian Federal Police explain how to report illegal or harmful content.