MODERN PARENTING: 7 tips for protecting children from online predators
Back when I was a kid... I left on my bike at 9am and didn’t come home until dinner. Everyone in the neighborhood left their front door open. I had all my friends' phone numbers memorized. I used a payphone to call my mom to pick me up after practice. I’d never heard of the Internet or social media.
Fill in the blank with whatever you remember as a kid and chances are it’s vastly different from what kids will remember from today. As modern parents there’s so much for us to manage and keep track of. Not only do we live in a more dangerous world but our kids have access to far more than we ever did. The good news for us though is that we’ve also got access to far more tools than our parents ever did. Sometimes I think our biggest challenge is keeping up with it all so that we can stay in the know and take advantage of what’s available to us.
As parents we all have a similar goal to raise our kids to be independent, resilient, respectful, and decent people (throw in a bunch of other positive adjectives and I think most parents would agree). It really does take a village and we can all learn from and support one another. In this series we’re reaching out to other parents to understand different perspectives on parenting in today’s world.
First up we’re hearing from Dr. John Rich Jr., an educational psychologist, associate professor of psychology at Delaware State University, and the father of two great boys. He writes about parenting and teaching topics at www.drjohnrich.com.
The topic of online predators is terrifying for most parents and given that our toddlers are using iPads, it’s never too early to get informed about the angers. Today Dr. Rich gives us 7 tips on how to protect our kids from online predators. It’s a must read for every parent.
7 tips for protecting children from online predators
The worldwide web and all of the gadgets that give our kids access to it has presented a whole new challenge for parents. Predators is a term we knew and understood as kids. Online predators is something we’ve only learned about as parents ourselves. While the danger of being victimized by predators that the child knows (which represents the majority of cases) is about the same as it has always been, the introduction of technology has broadened the reach of would-be offenders. Chat rooms and online gaming appear to be a primary means for offenders to begin the process of entering a child's world. Our parents didn't have to worry about these issues. Parents now have to worry not only about protecting children from predators in general, but also protecting children from online predators.
Here I want to discuss what parents can do to make their children more aware of how predators operate, and the more important issue of how your overall parenting is the best defense against victimization. Building your child's self-esteem, teaching him to be confident enough to trust his gut, making him certain that he can trust you and tell you anything, and that you will be on his side - these kinds of lessons don't come from a sitdown that you check off your list. The life skills that will help your child navigate through life's multiple snags, decisions and disappointments happen as a result of your consistent, positive, loving parenting.
What can parents do?
The kids who are most vulnerable to the efforts of online (and in-person) predators are those without a caregiver who is actively involved in their lives. If a child has no one to talk to about their struggles, disappointments, and trouble, they’re exposed to the fake affection that the predator will provide.
There is good news.
I’ve mentioned in previous articles that the key to positive, effective parenting is to provide your child with an abundance of warmth, empathy and affection. While some people suggest that praise, rewards and kindness is somehow the equivalent of coddling, and will create spoiled children, I submit that these gifts to your children are the building blocks for creating strong, courageous, and self-assured adults who feel confident enough in their own internal signals to know when something that someone else says or does is inappropriate.
Top 7 tips for protecting children from online predators
In my review of the most recent research, I’ve identified 7 specific things parents can do to raise awareness about online predators, and to keep your child from being exposed to them:
- Instill awareness of the danger of sharing personal information
- Discuss their online friends, and emphasize that they should never exchange pornography or explicit photos
- Explain that they should never agree to any online meetings
- Establish guidelines for appropriate Internet use (what types of sites are ok? what types of videos are off-limits?)
- Look carefully at your child's screen names. Predators look for screen names that are sexually explicit, or are attached to suggestive photos. Force your child to change any screen name that might imply an openness to sexual talk
- Require your child to use their computer or other device in a public location
- Trust your gut. If you suspect that a predator has made any attempt to contact your child, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). You can learn about NCMEC or donate to their important work by clicking here.
Whew! I'm so sorry that I have to write about this. It makes me sick to my stomach to think about any child being targeted and victimized, and it hurts my heart to make you think about it.
The final word - your parenting is your child's best defense
As important as all of these suggestions are, the truth is that your child may still encounter one or more predators in her lifetime. According to a researcher named David Finkelhor, the best defense against sexual predators, bullies, and other victimizers is a more generic education about life skills that are taught over a long term of everyday interactions between caring, attentive parents and resilient children. Most of the resilient children in his study about chat rooms refused to engage with strangers beyond mere acquaintance, and they used the life skills that Finkelhor describes to do it.
What are those life skills, Dr. John?
This is my commission to you, as parents - use kindness, boundaries, and modeling proper behavior in your own life to create resilient children, who can fight off the advances of these evil predators. As a result of just doing this, you will likely, just as a matter of course, teach your children appropriate ways to manage conflict, how to see things from another person's perspective, how to control your emotions and make rational decisions even when your feelings seem overwhelming, how to think clearly about the consequences of actions (such as giving away your phone number or email address, or sending photos of yourself to a stranger), how to be comfortable saying NO! when you want to refuse a request, and why you should always - when you need it - seek out help from someone who's got your back if you are not sure what to do.
When your child knows that you are there, listening, supportive, loving and caring for them, and you are acting like the person you want your child to become, they will be much less likely to succumb to the advances of an unknown creep. Why do they need someone they've never met, when they have you?
Enjoy your parenting! I look forward to your comments.
Dr. John Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist, associate professor of psychology at Delaware State University, and the father of two great boys. He writes about parenting and teaching topics at www.drjohnrich.com. He is also a regularly featured guest on WMNH radio, has a column on a news website in Manchester, NHL, is syndicated on the Psychology Today parenting website, and is also soon appearing on WBOC TV.