CTV News interviewed me for this terrible story about a 24-year-old man who posed as a young girl on Facebook to lure 11 to 13-year-old boys into sending nude pictures of themselves. He would then coerce or blackmail them into sending more by threatening to expose them to their families.
Kids are often quick to take other users’ identities at face value. They don’t yet have the experience and judgement to question such things, or to anticipate this kind of deception. The person on the other end doesn’t have to be a pedophile – it can also be a school bully, or another student attempting a mean-spirited joke.
What can parents tell their kids? If your kids are online, you should bring up the subject of deliberate or mistaken identity switches. Let them know people can do this for all sorts of reasons, out of curiosity, for a joke, to bully someone or to gain someone’s trust to hurt or humiliate them. Tell your children it is unethical – and sometimes illegal – to pass as someone else just to gain their trust. All it takes is a stolen password or using someone else’s picture, and it’s difficult for other users to know what’s going on.
Remind your kids to maintain a healthy dose of suspicion if anyone online asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable, or that is illegal. It is important that kids know it is against the law to share pictures of anyone under the age of 18 wearing anything less than a bathing suit. Even if he is your boyfriend (or girlfriend). Even if you send it willingly. Tell a trusted adult. And if they don’t do anything, tell someone else.
Most of the time this kind of deception involves a peer, classmate or acquaintance and not a sexual predator online, but the underlying lesson about the ease of deception online remains the same.
They may spend plenty of time on Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram, but many of today’s kids are also learning to use digital technologies in responsible ways for creative, productive projects as well.
This month’s educational column of Montreal Families Magazine was co-written by my 14-year-old twin daughters, Sophie and Alex. They list and describe some helpful apps kids can for school. Check out the article here. Show your kids how to put French verbs right at their fingertips, turn their smartphones or tablets into scientific calculators, and even compress the amount of data they use (reducing your monthly bills in the process).
Among the trickier situations you may come across are those that involve your friends’ kids. You come across your friend’s 12-year-old son smoking cigarettes in a neighbourhood park. Or perhaps you stumble across a compromising picture of another’s daughter online. Maybe you hear about disturbing bullying behaviour going on at school. Or, most complicated of all, your own child comes to you concerned about a friend engaging in high-risk activities, from drinking or illegal drug use to cutting.
What do you do? Reporting on what you’ve heard or seen can feel awkward at best, potentially risky at worst. We all like to think we’d want to know if our kids were doing something illegal or dangerous, but the truth can be way more complicated. Some parents can get very defensive. They may be embarrassed or aggressive. It’s quite common for parents to deny that their baby would ever do something like that, because the implication is that they have somehow failed in their parenting role.
In the very worst cases, calling up another child’s parent to report on what you’ve heard or seen can turn friends/acquaintances into enemies. A highly defensive parent may accuse you or your child of having a hidden agenda, accusing you of being self-righteous, never having liked their child, or starting untrue rumours for social gain. And if your child came to you with disturbing news in confidence, you risk alienating your own kid and causing social issues for them, in an effort to help a child at risk.
There’s no easy answer in this kind of scenario, but the following guidelines can help you make sense of a difficult situation and determine the best thing to do.
Understand the difference between meddling and worthwhile intervention. This is similar to the distinction we give kids between tattling and telling when they have witnessed bullying going on. Tattling behaviour (or meddling) is all about getting someone into trouble (“She puts on lipstick as soon as her parents aren’t around”); telling (or worthwhile intervention) is about getting someone out of trouble (She’s cutting her arms with a razor blade”). Only those indiscretions which truly involve potential danger need be reported. (Click to tweet this.)
Question your own motivation for getting involved. Is there some element of competition? Some unresolved issue between you and the child’s parents, or between your kids? If you truly feel this child is at risk because of what you know, then you are on more solid ground. Assure the child’s parents that you have no intention of gossiping or judging them, and that in a similar situation you would want someone to tell you your child was in trouble.
Consider how close you are with the child’s parents. There are some smaller indiscretions you may choose to tell a very close friend, because you know their values, worries and concerns for their kids, but which would be inappropriate to tell an acquaintance or a parent you’ve never met.
Never promise your child complete confidence when someone can potentially be hurt. It’s tempting to tell our children that we will always keep their secrets, but this is dangerous ground. If you believe they know of a potentially dangerous situation (for themselves or others), you and they have a moral obligation to do something about it. They need to know this from the beginning, even if it means they may occasionally be more reluctant to speak to you. The critical factor is how you react: Don’t go behind their backs. Involve them in problem-solving. Determine the most effective and respectful form of intervention. Try and explain the long-term consequences of helping their friend.
Consider whether this issue places an undue burden of responsibility on your own child. A friend who confides to your child about such problems as depression, drug use, or thoughts of suicide is inadvertently overwhelming them with responsibility. These serious problems are too much for a teenager to deal with alone, and if something really terrible happens as a result, they will feel accountable. Kids don’t have the experience, judgement and knowledge to help out someone in real trouble, so know when to go to an adult for help is really important. If your child has come to you with this, it’s likely because they are feeling overwhelmed. They need your help to figure this out. Note that it’s always worth gently questioning your child about their own involvement, since it’s not uncommon to bring forward a problem to test your reaction by saying it’s “for a friend.”
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"What a crucial conversation, and what a talented speaker! Dr. Alissa Sklar’s presentation to Akiva School’s parent body was full of clear, relevant, down-to-earth facts presented in a highly engaging manner. No jargon, no scare tactics – just solid information and excellent advice. A no-risk program for parents." -Frances (Cooki) Levy, Head of The Akiva School ("The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviors for All Ages")
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RiskWithinReason is intended as a support and information resource. If you need counselling for your child, consider contacting a trained child psychologist. Your family doctor or CLSC can recommend one, or you can also visit Collage Therapies at http://www.collagetherapies.ca/en