Online stranger danger is a subject which causes much angst amongst parents. By its very insidious nature, the threat of predators has little visibility, is difficult to locate and when it strikes, the consequences can be catastrophic.
Is it likely is that a stranger with harmful intentions will contact my child online?
It is probable. At any one time, 750.000 individuals are estimated to be looking to connect with children for sexual purposes. Bearing in mind that the Internet does not know borders puts the danger into perspective. Leaving children unequipped with online safety skills will leave them more exposed to strangers’ schemes. In this respect, an Australian survey has shown that about 34% of kids (aged 8-13) use social media and share personal information in the following manners:
47% of kids share photos of their face
27% of kids share their last name
19% of kids share their school name or photo of their uniform
And 6% of kids share their phone number or address.
On what online platforms or apps can strangers contact my child?
The reality is that, as soon as connected online, users, and this includes kids, are contactable in one way or the other, by third parties. This is relevant to all social media, emails, messaging apps, quite often video games and also video-sharing platforms where one day instead of watching their favourite show, kids can come across a stranger “talking to them” via their videos and asking them to do certain things or contact them via social media or email, for example.
How to manage the risk of a stranger contacting my child online?
In the physical world, we take time to organise safeguards to ensure that our children remain physically safe at all times. For instance, we do not leave them alone at home, we do not let them go to school unaccompanied until a certain age etc. We also set time aside to teach them safety skills which they will use to remain safe while becoming progressively more independent. For example, we teach them road safety rules, where to go or not to go on their own and how to (or avoid to) interact with strangers. When it comes to the online world, we can transpose this approach by providing our kids with safety rules to help them navigate their progressively newfound freedom, and by managing their online environment according to their age. This can be achieved by developing a strategy around three key points
1- The crucial conversation on stranger danger
If we want to keep our children safe, there is no avoiding the stranger danger conversation. Children have to understand what particular danger we seek to avoid in order to understand and use adequate strategies to remain safe. Just as we explain that observing road rules is necessary to avoid being severely injured or killed by a car, we have to explain that safety rules must be observed to avoid stranger danger.
How to start the online stranger danger conversation? Keep things simple, start with the physical world “stranger danger” conversation with age appropriate words and concepts. Then it becomes simpler to transpose it to the online world. This will help children understand that the online world is part of the real world. It is real people behind their computers, tablets and phones. Ill-intentioned strangers in the physical world can be online, they have the internet too. The big difference we need to ensure children understand is that because they are hiding behind a screen, strangers can pretend to be someone else using a photo that is not theirs, lying about their age and names. The message we aim for children to take away is: let’s keep safe and make sure we actually know who we are talking to and writing to when online by observing important rules.
2- The golden rules for your child to keep in mind
The three basic golden rules to help your child keep safe from strangers online are:
1) Check identity
2) Never share certain photos
3) Never share certain info
What does this mean in practice?
1) Check identity:
Only accept to communicate with or accept friend requests from someone your age and whom you know in real life. Make sure they are who they say. Your child can check this by agreeing a password with his or her friends before connecting online or by asking them a question that a stranger would not know the answer to (such as the name of their pet or teacher, or the theme of their last birthday party).
2) Never share photos of:
i. The front of your house or any background which can help guess your address.
ii. Your school or school uniform or sport uniform.
iii. Check with your parents what photos of yourself can be shared and on where online they can be shared.
3) Never share this personal information:
i. Address & phone numbers
ii. Date of birth
iii. Name of your school
iv. Your passwords
v. Your parents’ names
3- Make good use of the privacy settings
Check the privacy settings of the various devices, social media and apps your child uses. These will help limit the possibility for strangers to contact them or see your child’s activity online. Go through your child's friends or contacts with them and delete/block any contacts they do not actually know in the physical world. Depending on their age and maturity, you can explain what the settings are for and how they relate to stranger danger and the associated safety rules.
A few links to further resources on online stranger danger: