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.
Now 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.