Stranger danger online: What parents need to know

The recent spate of news stories about young girls going missing in the Montreal area has a lot of parents worried. The police have said they have evidence that the girls, who were living in a Laval group home, may have been lured away by gangs for sexual exploitation. The disappearances have been linked to the use of social media to target young, vulnerable teens. Five girls have gone missing over the last month, and four have been located. 17-year-old Vanessa Ticas still has not been found.

SextingNow I have always argued that most kids, most of the time, are far more at risk from the people they know than strangers on line. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that abductions by strangers account for only 1% of kidnappings. Far more common are kidnapping by parents in a custody dispute, or someone else related to the family. When it comes to sexual abuse, it is estimated that 8 out of 10 abused children know their abuser offline.

Kids are far more likely to be harmed online by their peers, whether its through bullying or the non-consensual sharing of sexual images. However, there are clearly many risks online for children and teens. When you mix kids and adults, anonymity, spontaneity and the incredible power of digital technology, people are likely to get hurt. So what can parents do to help keep their kids safe from strangers online?

Start young. The best strategy is to begin age-appropriate conversations about the power and challenges of online tools from the time kids are very young. It’s much harder to introduce supervision, rules and consequences with a 14-year-old. Children get online as soon as they can click or swipe, and many start with gaming accounts, progressing to email, messaging and social media. Your young children and preteens should ask permission before they open any accounts, and should share passwords with parents. Sit next to them to configure privacy settings. Don’t know how? Google is a user manual for everything – show them you are interested in learning about these tools.

Teach online “street smarts.” They need to be told over and over that nothing they do online should ever be considered private, whether it’s a text message to your best friend, an email to a classmate, or a picture sent to a boyfriend. They need to understand that even though their computer feels private , it’s actually very public and they should behave accordingly. Explain repeatedly how easy it is for someone to “pass” as someone else, whether it’s an older man passing as a teen boy, a student pretending to be a teacher, or a stranger pretending to be a friend.

Be frank about the risks. Parenting in 2016 means putting aside your embarrassment and addressing sex online. Kids today have access to the kinds of sexualized images adults couldn’t legally get their hands on 10 years ago. You are kidding yourself if you think your kid hasn’t seen porn online, accidentally in a pop-up, or through a search. They need to understand the meaning of sharing sexualized images of themselves or others. And both young girls and boys need to be told that others may try to “groom” them for exploitation by being charming or flattering, promising gifts or extra attention. This resource on sexual trafficking of kids by gangs has some great tips. This document from BC is also very useful.

Set rules. Establish consequences. Follow through. If you don’t want your teen using video chat in a room with a closed door, make that clear and follow through. If you want your child to notify you by text whenever they change locations (going to a movie, going to a friend’s house, etc.), make it a condition of owning a cellphone.

Freedom is a privilege to be earned through consistent, responsible behaviour. I’ve said it before, and I believe this is true online and off. Having access to wifi, smartphones, iPads and computers is an incredible privilege. If your child wants privacy from you online, they need to earn it in increments by showing good judgement.    Send article as PDF   

iPhone and Android are tracking your locations: How, where and what to do about it

Kids smartphones settings privacy location

Creative Commons license by Geração conectada

It’s hard enough to teach our kids safe, responsible use of the digital technologies we understand without worrying about all the stuff we don’t know. For example, did you realize that your (or your kids’) iPhone or Android device is tracking and recording all the locations you visit?

I had no idea. And it’s safe to say that most kids and parents don’t know about this either, since the setting is buried layers deep.

What does this mean? Anyone with access to your kids’ iPhone or Android device can view and map the places they visit frequently, the dates and times they were there. Their home. Their school. Their friends’ houses, favourite hangouts, the hockey arena, soccer pitch or dance studio where they go every week.

Apple, which included this feature in their iOS 7.0 update, insists this information isn’t stored anywhere on the cloud, so it’s totally safe. Unless, of course, someone gets hold of your phone and manages to access your data.It’s also unclear how this data is used when you access apps with location services, such as requesting a map with roads near you.

If you have an Android device it’s even worse, because this data is recorded through your Google account, accessible by hackers on any device. They don’t need your kid’s phone to hack into this information.

One of the challenges in keeping ourselves – and our kids – safe in a digital era is understanding the many ways data is collected about our activities. This is a worthwhile conversation to have with your kids – get them involved in adjusting the settings, so they understand why it’s important to manage personal data.

How do I change the settings? Changing the settings isn’t hard, but it ca be confusing, because it is buried layers deep. The step-by-step instructions for iPhone are listed below with screenshots.

How will this affect my use of the phone and apps? Not at all. You can still access Google Maps, Yelp and any other location-based app as long as location services are enabled.

Step 1: Go to Settings and click on Privacy.

iPhone settings safety location privacy








Step 2: Click on Location Services

iPhone privacy settings kids








Step 3: Click on System Services – you may need to scroll down to the bottom of a long list of apps.

iPhone location services settings kids








Step 4: Select Frequent Locations click to turn it off.

iPhone Frequent Locations settings kids








Step 6: You can click on any of the items in the list to see specific locations mapped with details of dates and times.

iPhone My Locations settings kids








Have an Android device? Follow the step-by-step instructions in this video to disable the settings, or follow the screenshots at the bottom of this page at    Send article as PDF   

Public parenting workshop: What parents need to know about raising their kids as digital citizens

Sexting, hacking, cyberbullying, Internet addiction – the stories about kids’ misuse of the Internet is enough to make parents despair. But there is no need for that! It’s possible critical for parents to teach their kids safe, ethical, productive and creative use of digital technologies.

Join me tomorrow evening (7:30 p.m.) at the Trafalgar School for Girls for a practical workshop for parents with clear explanations, concrete strategies and a hefty dose of empowerment. In the clip below, I explain to Global TV’s Jamie Orchard how parents can offer their kids’ guidance, even if their children’s tech skills exceed their own:

Global TV with Jamie Orchard

Alissa Sklar Ph.D. speaks with Global TV’s Jamie Orchard about parents, kids and the safe, productive use of digital technologies.

We will look at what the research tells us in terms of effective guidelines for parents on email, password safety, actively monitoring our Google “footprint,” sexting and more. We will also cover the important ways schools can must  be teaching students how to be creative, productive and prepared online, so they are best prepared to meet the demands of college program admissions, job applications and the many, many careers that will require digital knowledge and skills.

You can read more about the Trafalgar presentation here – it is free and open to all parents (not just those with kids at Traf). RSVP:    Send article as PDF