Why do kids talk to strangers online
Kids talking to strangers online is a seriously scary thought for some parents and not much of a consideration for others.
As a parent, we often don't understand or realise the risks in a child or teens need to engage and communicate with someone not known to them in real life. Even with education and online stranger danger warnings, teenagers especially, will continue to befriend strangers and talk to random people through their social media. But why?
After talking to 1000s of kids and teenagers in my career, it became obvious to me that a number of factors affect why a child or teen will engage and talk with a stranger and potential predator online.
Here are the most common reasons:-
1. Lack of supervision
With how many young people have a internet enabled device (mobile phone, tablet, computer or laptop) from a young age, being online is super easy for kids. It's also increasingly harder for parents to supervise and monitor their usage. Harder but not impossible!
A lack of supervision or oversight over a child or teens online world is often the main reason a child will speak with strangers online and the main reason they will become a victim of online grooming or online child abuse.
Supervision can and is often difficult to manage for parents and with an increasingly busy and overwhelming world, I hear how difficult parents find it to keep up with all that is going on in their child's world.
As a detective I often talked to parents about this subject after a child had been groomed or abused. I would liken the online world as a room full to the brim of strangers or even a stadium full of people. You wouldn't even consider dropping your child in a random place with a room full of strangers without supervision or someone to keep an eye on them, so why do we drop our children into an online world filled with billions of strangers with no supervision or oversight?
Supervision is as simple as ensuring you are checking in on their online world, questioning their online friends and keeping devices out of bedrooms. It's sitting and watching or playing an online game with them, going through what to do if someone they don't know friend requests them or how to block a person on their favourite game or device.
2. Lack of education
With how early our children are being exposed to devices and the online world, educating our children is paramount but often over looked when a child is starting out on a device due to the fact that we just don't realise how quick and easy it is for kids to be groomed.
Education on stranger danger, online predators and risks associated with talking with strangers online needs to be a priority and shared with young people BEFORE they are at risk of being groomed or approached by a stranger online.
This means that a young child of 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 needs to be informed and educated that there are people online who will pretend to their friend (but are not) and that they should come and tell you so you can help them block and delete anyone who is not their friend in real life. NOTE: for this age group, it would be of more benefit and reduce the risks to have complete supervision of your child's online usage.
As your child gets more savvy and confident online, their friends and school friends will talk about the games and apps they are using, which will potentially push your child to want to what their friends have. It can often cause a lot of arguments and push back from a young person or teenager which in turn causes stress.
Before allowing any app, take the time to investigate, search and potentially play a game or app before you allow your child to download and use it. Do your homework, refer to such resources as Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) or the applications online reviews.
Ask your child, what they know about online stranger danger, what is inappropriate to ask of someone or say to someone online and what they would do if someone they were talking to online, made them feel uncomfortable or asked them for a picture of them or their body.
3. Seeking connection
In an increasingly connected online world, it often feels like we are struggling to connect. The same goes for our young people.
Increasingly I saw young people feeling alone and lacking connection with their friends, despite having 100s of online friends and people on their social media accounts but no-one who really got them. The thing that social media and the online world doesn't have is 'real' connections to people, regardless of how many followers they have.
Often, young people feel that lack of connection and will accept or seek out strangers to fill it. They will take risks or do something they would never do in real life because for a moment they feel needed, wanted and 'connected' to another. However, that connection does not last long and the feeling is often gone very quickly.
Groomers and online predators leverage a teenager or child's need to feel 'connected' or wanted and they capitalise on it by filling a need that the young person is lacking. Combined with a lack of education and supervision, it is a recipe for disaster.
Encourage your young people to spend time with friends in real life. To be involved in sports and extra-curricular activities and to have 'real' friendships. The online world isn't all bad and being in contact with their friends truly is important but we need to ensure they understand that real friends are just as important as the people they speak to online.
Creating boundaries around friendships and online usage, talking to them about appropriate and inappropriate behaviours online and coming up with a plan on how to respond if someone 'acts' inappropriately will help you and your young person have more confidence in their online activities.
For more information and advice on this subject, check out our book 'Operation KidSafe - a detectives guide to child abuse prevention'. There is more in-depth advice and tips included as well as other information about child abuse prevention.