If you grew up in the United States, or if you grew up in Canada and had access to American television networks, you may remember the “Stranger Danger” PSAs. If you are unfamiliar with this campaign, watch:
The “Stranger Danger” campaign was a huge failure. Why? One of the reasons it failed is because if you ask a child to define a stranger, it will be a different definition than that given by an adult. Unless the adult clearly defines what they mean by “stranger”, the child is probably imagining something quite different. However, the biggest reason this campaign failed is because most of the abuses this campaign was trying to protect children against are not perpetrated by strangers. They are perpetrated by the people known and trusted by both the parents and the children, such as family members, teachers, ministers, and community leaders.
Now, this same failure is happening in regards to protecting children from online predators. “Stranger Danger” didn’t work for our generation, so why do we think it will work for the online generation?
We’ve all heard the stories of the stranger paedophile who tries to lure the child in some online chatroom. We’ve all heard the stories of people who have met a stranger for a date, only to be raped or kidnapped. We’ve been told to tell our children to never speak to a stranger online or give them any personal information. It is the same thing my mother told me regarding strangers in the park, or if a stranger knocks on the door or if they telephone. As adults, we’ve been told that if you are going to meet a stranger whom you’ve met online, bring a buddy, tell a friend where you are going, have an escape route, etc.
We are failing our children. A lot of parents are not educating their children about the predators who are part of what we consider to be “safe” online communities. These “safe” online communities feel just like school, church, scout groups, sport teams, sleepovers at friends and family.
Recently, one of these “safe” online communities, one that I’m heavily involved with, has been rocked by the news of allegations that one of its very trusted members is under FBI investigation for exchanging naked photographs with his underage fans, soliciting them for sex, and participating with them in video cybersex via Skype. The accused is a well-known YouTube “celebrity” who has performed with a number of more well-known geek “celebrities”. The accused has a very public life, including having a very public relationship with another well-known YouTube “celebrity”. He was not only trusted by the community members, but also by the parents of the teenagers who are members of this community. Many parents met him and shook his hand after becoming acquainted with him through various online mediums.
When my children go online, it is the person who not only gains their trust, but also gains my trust, that I’m most concerned about. It is those interaction that I monitor the most and talk with my children about.
I think I am one of the few people who is no more shaken by this news than I would be if I heard the news that a teacher at my child’s school was sexually abusing or exploiting students. The reason I am not shaken is because I have knowledge that this sort of this is possible, in any situation. It is because I have knowledge that most cases of abuse, rape and kidnapping are perpetrated by people we know and trust, and I apply the same rules I would apply “in real life” to online, that I am not shocked.
The rules parents are told to put in place, such as checking your child’s browsing history, reading their chat logs, blocking certain websites, reading the message boards they are posting on, creating a phantom account and spying on their child as they are talking in an online chatroom, do not work in this situation. Also, warning your children about what information they give online, etc., does not work in this situation. Why? Because parents are encouraging their children to be a part of these “safe” online communities in the same way they encourage their children to participate in “real life” communities. Parents are facilitating it in the same way parents facilitate their children attending school, sport, extra-curricular activities, etc. The parents are active in these communities as well.
So how do you protect your child from predators who may prey in “safe” online communities? You protect them the same way you do when you send them school, the babysitter, scouts, sport, etc. You give them knowledge. You let your child know that there are people who will make them feel special and loved. You let your child know that there are people who will build up trust and then ask to do things that you wouldn’t do with a stranger, like exchange naked photos. You teach your children to ask themselves, “If my teacher, Uncle Bob, sport coach, scout leader, etc., asked me to do this, would it be okay?” You also tell your child that sometimes it does feel okay because the person who is trying to take advantage makes them feel special; the abuser makes believe that there is a real relationship.
It is easier to protect your child from this sort of abuse before they enter puberty. It becomes a little more difficult once the raging hormones hit. I know. I’ve had someone who was in a position of authority take advantage when I was a teenager. They made me feel special and loved. They made it feel right and okay. But it wasn’t okay. Because they were an adult and I was a teenager, even if I was consenting. They knew they had authority over me and they broke the inherent trust that comes with that position.
It is one thing for teens to send explicit text messages to each other or naked photos. It is another issue all together when one of the people participating is an adult and the other person is underage. We are not talking about statutory rape. We are not talking about sex between two consenting people of age. We are talking about the abuse of power, trust and authority; something that is very easily manipulated no matter how educated someone is, and regardless of their level of self-esteem. It doesn’t matter how sure someone is of their self and their identity, it feels damn good when someone makes you feel special. Especially if that someone is a person who is admired and celebrated.
And this is where you need to tell your child that if that trust is broken, that if someone takes advantage of their position of authority, your child is not to blame. You may not have a personal understanding, but you need to reassure your child that if anything like this were to happen, it is safe for them to talk about it. You need to tell your child that if they are afraid to tell you, regardless of the reason, that they need to tell another teacher, or counsellor, or police officer; someone else who is in a position of authority. Your child is probably already blaming themselves. They probably already feel stupid and ashamed for believing they were special. They probably feel dirty because they think they allowed someone to manipulate and bend their boundaries, instead of realising that the adult is the one who is at fault. And as more victims come forward, this shame and self-blame will grow. They will think, “How could I have been so stupid!?”
It doesn’t matter how old you are, you are at risk for having trust broken. But at least when we become adults, hopefully, we are more psychologically equipped to deal with it. We have life experience behind us that has taught us trust can always be broken. Regardless of risking a broken trust, we still have to trust at some point. Children are still learning this. Having your trust broken when you are a child or a teenager is much more difficult to recover from. Your child needs to know that no matter what the circumstance, in the event that trust is broken, they have multiple avenues and people in whom they can confide.
You can never completely protect your children from online predators, anymore than you can completely protect them from predators who they will meet in real life. After all, regardless of how or where you meet someone, you only know what they choose to let you know. We all have public faces and private realities. The person you work with can be very nice and pleasant, but when they go home, they could be abusing their spouse or they could be the victims of spousal abuse, just as one example.
You do not want your child to be paranoid of online communities any more than you want your child to be paranoid about attending school or a sleepover at a relative’s home. But you do need to educate your child that the abuses happen most often at the hands of people who are trusted, and not by strangers. You need to educate your child regarding what to do if they know of someone who is being abused online or if they are being abused by someone online. And you need to educate them in the same manner that you would when you educate them regarding abuses in their “real life”.
Remember, regardless if you are chatting up a stranger in the grocery store or a stranger online, or if it is a trusted online community or trusted “real life” community, they carry the same risks and the same safety rules apply.
Jules Sherred is the parent of two teenage boys, Geeky Pleasures creator, GM of The Look 24/7, hosts the Geeky Pleasures Radio Show, & author, recently publishing Five Little Zombies And Fred. Jules is also, slowly, working on another book called Nerd Love. Follow Jules on Twitter @GeekyJules, or circle Jules on G+.