One of my elementary school-aged children was recently the victim of an online attempt at sexual exploitation.
This was absolutely horrifying in itself, but—even more disturbing and alarming—it was followed by messages of intimidation and a threat of serious harm if my child did not engage and respond.
I am a very involved and responsible parent who had safety and screen-time restrictions in place pre-COVID. I taught and talked with my children about stranger danger and online safety, and reinforced those messages regularly. I monitored their intermittent online activities and reviewed browser footprints to ensure their engagement was limited to safe sites or with trusted friends and family members. Once the pandemic surged and my children moved to an all-remote academic platform, ironically, the restrictions I instituted were even stricter, and my surveillance of their very limited online activity increased.
Yet, I couldn’t protect my child.
While playing what I believed to be an age-appropriate online game, my child was approached and solicited by someone via the game’s chatroom who then threatened my child’s safety if demands were not met. When I discovered this deep violation, my feelings of shock, disgust, and helplessness raged off the charts. And when I saw the terror in my child’s eyes instilled by the chatroom messages, my protective instincts went full throttle. I immediately filed a report with a national hotline and organization that focuses on internet crimes against children, and followed that up with a report to local law enforcement. Thankfully, with the help of a police detective, the perpetrator has since been positively identified and prosecution is being pursued.
Although I am unbelievably thankful my child is safe—and there is some resolution—it will take us all longer to heal as real damage was done. Through this primal breach, my child’s innocence, sense of safety and security (and that of my entire family’s), along with my attempts to believe in the human race, were gravely compromised.
As the COVID pandemic continues and forces everyone—children and adults alike—to remain online for more and longer periods of time, it is critical for us, as parents, to reinforce the vital importance of online safety by reviewing these points regularly with our children:
Your digital imprint is not only the sum of what you intentionally share and post. It also includes any websites you visit or any online games you play.
Personal information should never be revealed. (And be sure to define what “personal information” means. It’s not only name, address, date of birth, for example, but can also include age, neighborhood, school name, etc.). This is also important to remember when creating screen names.
The internet is not a private place. Once information or images are shared, they exist forever.
The strength of passwords is more important than the ease of remembrance. You should never use your name or nickname, date of birth, or pet’s name. Passwords should be unique and never shared with anyone (the exception is for parents to know their children’s passwords for safety).
Permission must always be requested before sharing another’s information (e.g., photo or words) on any social media platform to ensure and confirm consent.
Misunderstandings and misinterpretations (e.g., attempts at humor) are more common in digital than in-person communications. Always stop, think, and review before posting or responding.
Internet use can be highly addictive. Time limits are necessary if self-discipline is not enough to ensure and maintain balance and good health. (This is important for children and adults alike).
The internet allows for false misrepresentations and it affords people anonymity. It can also give confidence and courage to people who might not speak or behave in similar ways in person. “Flaming” (the online act of posting insults, often with profanity or other offensive language) and “trolling” (the intentional act of creating discord) are becoming increasingly common, as are online threats to children. These cannot be tolerated in any form.
If your child is ever a victim of intimidation or online exploitation, it is important to reinforce they did nothing wrong. Rather, something wrong happened to them. Yet, bad feelings and guilt can still arise and children must be reassured that they are not at fault.
Do not remain silent. ALWAYS report ANY suspicious or questionable activity or communication to law enforcement IMMEDIATELY. Parents, law enforcement officials, and adults in positions of trust are here to listen, take information seriously, and help. And there are ways to ensure and protect your child’s safety and privacy.
We need to make it safe for our innocent children to come forward, to share difficult, uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing information in order to protect and keep them—and our entire family—safe. And that begins with regular communication on these difficult topics.
Our world has moved increasingly digital—in both good and bad ways—and it is likely to remain that way for some time. We can better protect all of our children when we work together to actively engage them, look, and always keep listening. If you are a parent or an adult in a position of trust, don’t wait. Begin or review the conversation about online safety NOW.
If you need more information or help, consider contacting:
Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center: https://www.chicagocac.org/resources/internet-safety/