Stranger Danger in the Digital Realm: Talking to Your Kids About Online Predators

Child looking at phone in the dark

As parents, we diligently safeguard our children from real-world dangers, but we can’t overlook the potential threats lurking in the digital realm. It’s important to empower your children with the knowledge and skills to keep themselves safe in digital spaces. Luckily, there are effective strategies to teach kids of any age about protecting themselves from online predators.

What is an online predator? 

Online predatory behavior encompasses a range of activities, including sexual abuse, grooming minors, sextortion, commercial sexual exploitation, nonconsensual sexting, revenge porn, and the production of self-generated child sexual abuse images.

Predators have been known to target kids in just about any corner of the internet, including direct messages, comments sections of YouTube and TikTok, and video game message boards. Even seemingly innocuous things like Fitbit community boards can be a route for predators. 

How likely is my kid to be approached by internet predators? 

Statistics show that as many as 20% of children were contacted or solicited by an online predator in the last year. While that’s a scary number, it’s crucial to understand that just because a predator contacts your child doesn’t mean their exploitation attempts will be successful. Teaching your child how to spot and respond to predatory behavior can effectively shut down any attempts.  

Age-appropriate tips for talking to your child about online predators 

It’s never too early to start teaching your children skills that will help protect them from predators on social media and online. Here are some tips for how to talk to your kids at any age:

Toddler/preschool:

  • Teach them strong boundaries: Predators are skilled at spotting and targeting individuals with weak boundaries. Therefore, the best thing you can do to protect your child against abuse or exploitation is to teach them strong boundaries from a very young age. If someone makes them feel uncomfortable, they should know that it’s okay to find a trusted adult. 
  • Respect their “no.” Kids develop and practice their boundaries with the safe people in their lives. If a child’s boundaries are consistently respected by the people who are there to protect them, they will be more confident saying “no” to others, too. 

Elementary age:

All of the above, plus:

  • Explain that some adults want to hurt children: Let them know that, while most adults are safe and kind, there are some adults who want to hurt kids. 
  • Discuss the difference between in-person friends and online friends: Teach them that it’s hard to truly know someone you’ve met online. Explain that people may pretend to be someone they aren’t, such as an adult masquerading as a kid. Caution them to only communicate online with people they also know in person.
  • Emphasize the importance of not sharing personal information: Predators often collect bits of personal information and use that in their efforts to groom minors. Teach your child they should never share personal information online, such as where they live or their passwords. 

Tweens:

All of the above, plus: 

  • Establish an open-door policy: Especially as they become more independent, it’s important your tween knows to come to you if they receive any unwanted communication online. 
  • Teach them to trust their gut: Let them know that if something makes them uncomfortable in any way, they should follow their instinct. Advise them if they get a bad feeling about an interaction, they should cut off communication and tell an adult. 
  • Caution them to not meet an online contact in person: Emphasize that your child should never agree to meet someone in person who they met online. 

Teens:

All of the above, plus: 

  • Caution them against sexting: Let them know if they receive a sexual message, especially from a stranger, they should let an adult know right away.
  • Be specific: Share examples of healthy relationships and help them recognize when they’re in danger of being exploited, such as being pressured to keep a relationship secret or to do something that makes them uncomfortable. 

More actions to keep your child safe 

In addition to empowering your child to keep themselves safe from online predators, here are some further steps you can take:

  • Look at their social media together: Make it a point to regularly sit down with your child and view their social media feeds and direct messages with them. 
  • Ask questions about who they’re communicating with online: Keeping the lines of communication open will help you spot any warning signs and show your child they can come to you if they encounter any issues. 
  • Consider using a monitoring service: It’s impossible to look at everything your child posts, sends, or consumes online. AI-powered parental monitoring solutions, such as BrightCanary, scan your child’s online activity and alert you to any red flags so you can follow up. 

Frequently asked questions

What are the dangers of talking to strangers online?

Online predators might exploit children, ranging from emotional manipulation to more severe forms of abuse. 

The anonymity of the internet allows strangers to deceive children, with adults sometimes posing as peers. Even casual conversations can lead tweens to inadvertently share personal details, opening doors to identity theft or cyberstalking. 

Online interactions can be a source of cyberbullying, exposing tweens to inappropriate or harmful content, causing emotional distress. Moreover, virtual interactions can turn into real-world encounters, bringing about direct physical threats.

What is an example of stranger danger online?

Stranger danger online can manifest in many ways, one of which is catfishing. For instance, a tween might be approached on a social media platform by someone claiming to be another child their age, sharing common interests. Over time, the "friend" might ask for personal details, photos, or even a meet-up. However, this "child" could actually be an adult with malicious intentions, hiding behind a fabricated profile. This deceptive act, aiming to exploit the unsuspecting tween emotionally, financially, or physically, underscores the importance of being cautious and discerning with online relationships.

What is predatory online behavior?

Predatory online behavior refers to actions taken by individuals, typically adults, who use the internet to exploit others, especially children and tweens. This behavior can include grooming minors, where the predator builds a seemingly trustworthy relationship with the child to manipulate or exploit them later. It might involve requests for personal information, inappropriate conversations, or attempts to arrange face-to-face meetings. Often, the predator disguises their true identity and intentions, presenting a false persona to gain the child's trust. Parents should be vigilant and educate their children about these dangers, ensuring they know how to recognize and avoid such threats online.

How many predators are online a day?

There are an estimated 500,000 online predators active each day, according to the Beau Biden Foundation.

How do you avoid online predators?

To avoid online predators, it's essential to be cautious and vigilant when interacting online.  It's a good practice to keep devices in communal areas, regularly review friend lists and messages, and use parental control tools. 

Parents should educate their tweens about the importance of not sharing personal information, such as their full name, address, school, or phone number. They should also emphasize the dangers of speaking to strangers online and discourage forming friendships with unknown individuals.

Tweens should be encouraged to report any suspicious interactions or uncomfortable conversations immediately, and parents should maintain open communication, ensuring their child feels safe discussing their online experiences without fear of punishment.

In short

By teaching children skills to keep themselves safe from an early age, in addition to monitoring their internet activity, parents can help protect their children from the dangers of online predators.

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