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Keeping Children Safe from Online Predators

    The internet opens up a world of knowledge and opportunities for our kids. However, the same technology also creates risks, one of the most dangerous being online predators seeking to take advantage of children. As parents, how can we allow our kids to explore online while protecting them from those with ill intent?

    This comprehensive guide covers various ways to defend against online predators and foster safer technology use in families.

    Table of Contents

    Understanding Online Predator Risks

    Before examining solutions, it’s important to understand the nature and tactics of internet predators:

    Grooming

    Predators use psychological manipulation tactics called “grooming” to gain a child’s trust over time. This can involve becoming friends, offering gifts, giving compliments, sharing secrets, isolating them from others, desensitizing them to sexual topics, etc. Their end goal is sexual exploitation.

    Social Media Connections

    Social networks, chat apps, online games, and forums allow predators to contact, communicate with, and learn intimate details about kids. This helps them groom targets.

    Deception About Identity

    Predators easily disguise themselves as younger people, lying about age, name, photos, interests, location, and other details to form “relationships” with kids.

    Sexual Solicitations

    Predators steer conversations toward sexual topics and content. They may send or ask for sexually explicit messages, photos, videos, and eventually try to meet the child in person.

    Blackmail

    Predators collect compromising messages, photos, or videos containing illegal sexual content from a child, then blackmail the victim using the material as leverage to force sexual compliance.

    Exposure to Pornography

    Predators send or induce children into viewing pornography to normalize sexual behavior and lower inhibitions. Child porn is also used for blackmail.

    Physical Meetups

    Gaining a child’s trust online leads to predators convincing them to meet in person where the child can be abducted or assaulted.

    Minimal Tech Knowledge Needed

    Basic internet proficiency gives predators access to millions of kids. Hacking or special skills aren’t required, just a social network account.

    Difficulty Identifying

    It’s challenging to distinguish sexual predators from legitimate friendly adults due to ambiguous online identities.

    Securing Family Devices and Accounts

    The first line of defense is fortifying the security of devices and online accounts used at home:

    Install Parental Control Software

    Parental control software allows monitoring children’s device usage, restricting unacceptable apps/sites, tracking location, setting time limits, and filtering content. Popular options include Norton Family, Qustodio, Bark, and more.

    Use Firewalls and Antivirus

    Protect all family devices with a firewall and continuously updated antivirus software. This filters network traffic and blocks malware which predators can use to infect devices and steal personal data.

    Email and Password Best Practices

    Ensure kids use strong unique passwords, enable two-factor authentication on accounts, and avoid password reuse across sites. Use a password manager. Create a family shared email for kids instead of individual accounts.

    Limit Use of Public Computers

    using unsecured devices like library computers makes it easier for predators to steal passwords or install spyware unnoticed. Set rules around their use.

    Beware of Unknown Links

    Advise kids to avoid clicking random links which can install tracking programs, capture passwords, or lead to inappropriate sites. Scan QR codes yourself first.

    Turn On HTTPS

    Use encrypted HTTPS website connections whenever possible to prevent snooping on web traffic if surrounding Wi-Fi is compromised. Install a trusted VPN.

    Update Privacy Settings

    Review and lock down social media privacy settings for kids’ accounts. Disable geotagging which exposes home locations. Limit profile visibility.

    Monitor Smart Devices

    Intentional or not, internet-connected smart toys, home assistants like Alexa, wearables, and other smart gadgets can expose private conversations or locations. Disable features or unplug when not in use.

    Check App Permissions

    Pay attention to what personal data and device access apps request and restrict anything unnecessary. Don’t let games use camera or contacts without a valid reason.

    Communicating Smart Online Habits

    Children also need to learn smart personal online habits alongside security tools:

    Think Before Sharing

    Teach kids to pause before posting personal info online where anyone could see it. Explain that predators gather details to build fake identities.

    Interact Only with Known People

    Instruct kids to confirm identities of everyone they interact with online and meet them first in real life with parents. Avoid engaging strangers.

    Keep Accounts Fully Private

    Set all social media accounts to private so only confirmed friends can see posts. Avoid public accounts which allow access to all users.

    Guard Identifying Details

    Don’t share full name, phone, address, school, teams, hangouts, birthdate, or routines that indicate where a child will be. This protects from stalking.

    Discuss Appropriate Website Types

    Outline categories of sites that are safe versus prohibited. Install a pre-approved whitelist of sites. Disable incognito browsing.

    Monitor Changing Friendships

    Encourage informing parents about new online friends and privately messaging many people. Look for possible grooming relationships.

    Be Skeptical About “Deals”

    Predators entice kids by offering free games, rewards, job opportunities, modelling gigs, articles about them, or other opportunities in exchange for personal info.

    Avoid Mind Altering Substances

    Predators target intoxicated or impaired kids. Discuss risks of substance use even at parties with familiar peers as it lowers defences.

    Limit Overnight Device Use

    No devices in bedrooms overnight prevents late night chats with unknown people and unsupervised internet use in early morning.

    Question Video Chatting

    Ask why someone wants to video chat before participating. Look at their environment for identifying details. Most friendships start locally, not online.

    Stop Vulgar Conversations

    Instruct kids to alert parents or block users who steer conversations toward sexual/inappropriate topics, even if originally friendly.

    Be Cautious Sharing Photos

    Remind kids that any picture can be misused, lead to bullying, or blackmail. Checking with parents first is wise.

    Meet Publicly First Time

    If meeting an online friend occurs, choose a public place with parents attending and leave if uncomfortable. Avoid homes.

    Trust Instincts About Users

    Encourage paying attention to any uneasy feelings and ceasing contact. Predators often “seem nice” at first though.

    Overseeing Kids’ Online Activity

    While respecting some privacy, parents do need to proactively oversee kids’ online activity:

    Know Account Usernames

    Insist on knowing all social media, email, messaging, and gaming usernames kids create so accounts can be monitored periodically.

    Request Access to Devices

    Tell kids that granting parents access to their phones, laptops, and other gadgets whenever asked is a requirement to use them. Don’t feel the need to do daily checks.

    Install Monitoring Apps

    Apps like Bark, Boomerang, and Covenant Eyes can track texts, emails, chat conversations across platforms. However, discuss monitoring with kids first.

    Check Browser History

    Review browser history to see which sites kids visit, who they interact with, and detect interest in inappropriate content. Note patterns over time.

    Enable Location Tracking

    Location sharing allows confirming if kids are really at a friend’s house and identify frequent unknown locations. Some apps trigger alerts when kids don’t arrive as expected.

    Follow Their Online Friends

    Follow kid’s online friends yourself to get insight into their interests and online personas. Look for suspicious adult interactions.

    Keep Devices in Common Areas

    Restrict device usage to open living room areas rather than alone in bedrooms with the door shut. This both deters and exposes misconduct.

    Monitor Online Activity in Real Life

    Watch your kid chatting online from time to time. Gauge reactions and look for defensiveness or hiding screens which may signal misconduct or grooming.

    Research Unfamiliar Apps

    When kids download new apps and games, take time to use them yourself and research if concerning activity has been reported by other parents.

    Periodically Check Emails/Messages

    With your kid present, have them log into their accounts and randomly read through emails and messages to identify suspicious conversations. Just spot checking is fine.

    Dealing with Online Predator Encounters

    Despite best efforts, a child may still have an encounter with a predator. Here are steps if that occurs:

    Have an Open Dialogue Policy

    Assure kids they can tell you anything without judgement, and you will simply focus on addressing the problem calmly together. Keep communication open.

    Avoid Overreacting Initially

    If a child admits interacting with someone questionable online, thank them for coming forward and acknowledge it’s difficult and scary. Remain composed.

    Report to Authorities

    Contact police immediately if predators attempted to meet up with your child or engage in illegal sexual behavior. Provide all relevant electronic evidence. Law enforcement has special cyber investigation units to pursue online predators in partnership with sites and ISPs.

    Consult Legal Counsel

    If a predator has harassed, extorted, or otherwise harmed your child, consult a lawyer regarding civil suits especially if the person can be identified. They will also advise if criminal charges are warranted based on your jurisdiction’s laws.

    Permanently Block Contacts

    Work with your child to block inappropriate contacts in every app, site, phone, and gaming system they use so the predator cannot reconnect if initially shut out in only one place. Report the user if that functionality exists.

    Halt Device Usage Temporarily

    In severe cases where a predator gained access to very personal data, it may be best to entirely halt phone, computer, and internet use for 2-4 weeks until the situation is resolved. Some monitoring software also allows shutting off the internet remotely. Provide alternate access only while supervised.

    Seek Counselling Support

    Take advantage of counselling resources through school, community centers, and clinics. Talk therapy can help your child process their emotions and get closure. Look for youth counsellors experienced with online abuse cases.

    Review How to Improve Safety

    Without placing blame, have an open discussion around what safety precautions failed, so your family can amend policies and technology protections. Focus on education.

    Forgive and Reassure Your Child

    Make it clear no punishment will occur. The predator is fully responsible. Offer reassurance of unconditional love and how brave they were for telling you.

    Tips for Common Services

    Specific online platforms and services merit extra safety considerations:

    Social Media

    • Review all friend requests and followers – say no to strangers.
    • Make sure privacy settings are locked down.
    • Monitor photos and posts for risky content.
    • Ensure kids don’t have multiple hidden accounts.

    Texting Apps

    • Remind kids apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Kik are still texting – all usual cautions apply.
    • Many alternative messaging apps have poor protections compared to phone carrier systems.
    • Stranger danger applies equally to unknown numbers.

    Email

    • Set up a family email to use instead of individual child accounts. Avoid including their name.
    • Warn kids to not open attachments from unknown senders.
    • Use throwaway accounts for online forms, contests, etc. to avoid spam.

    Online Gaming

    • Research each game’s chat system and mute or disable if needed. Many have open global chat.
    • Remind kids not to share personal info with fellow gamers.
    • Check if screennames can be changed. Generic names like Player47329 are better than using real names.

    Video Sharing Sites

    • Ensure kids’ viewing preferences don’t include inappropriate topics.
    • Disable video comments entirely. Most are not moderated and can host predators.

    Live Streaming

    • Live video broadcasting to anyone is extremely risky for kids. Avoid if underage.
    • If old enough, adjust settings to stream privately and disable viewer comments.

    Protecting Family Members of All Ages

    While this guide focuses on defending children, predators target people of all ages:

    Remember Adolescents are Also Vulnerable

    Continue monitoring teens’ online activity closely. Stress making smart choices when connecting with new “friends” met online.

    Seniors Can Be Targets Too

    Lonely older adults get duped by fake romantic relationships that manipulate them into providing money and personal details. Remind seniors to be skeptical of anyone they haven’t met in person, especially suitors.

    Cautions for Online Dating

    Those using dating sites and apps should keep conversations on the site, meet first in public areas, and avoid isolating situations. Tell friends/family you are meeting someone new. Stay sober.

    Think Before Transmitting Reputation-Damaging Content

    Anything potentially embarrassing transmitted online can be used against you, even with supposed “trusted” recipients like romantic partners. Sexting can enable blackmail. Share cautiously.

    Periodically Search Your Name Online

    Use search engines and social media site lookup tools to see what details about you exist publicly online that criminals could leverage in fraud. Request deletion of any sensitive information.

    Fostering an Open Family Dialogue

    The core foundation for online safety is maintaining an open, non-judgemental dialogue with kids, not just erecting security barriers:

    Normalize Discussing “Difficult Topics”

    Discussions covering stranger danger, predators, pornography, abuse, and other serious subjects allow kids to open up without feeling embarrassed or afraid of “getting in trouble”.

    Outline Healthy Interpersonal Behavior

    Clarify age appropriate relationships, consent, intimacy, sexual contact, and how technology impacts them. Kids often lack context distinguishing online vs offline friends.

    Emphasize Asking for Help is Always Okay

    Reassure kids that asking parents for help, even at the risk of revealing mistakes, shows maturity and enables stopping problems before they spiral.

    Welcome Ongoing Conversations

    Check in frequently about online activity instead of just one big lecture. Frequent dialogue builds trust and familiarity discussing sensitive issues. Kids are then more inclined to disclose issues.

    Get Insight Into Their Perspective

    Ask kids what risks they see online and what policies they think would help. They likely have useful observations about dangers parents may not perceive.

    Discuss Practicing Media Literacy

    Kids need skills to analyze media manipulation methods, check sources, identify misinformation campaigns, inspect website credibility, and recognize propaganda across all media types.

    Outline Ethical Technology Use

    Explore questions about balancing online freedom, privacy, speech, and how to treat others with decency. Guide kids in developing their own moral compass.

    Welcome Questions Without Judgement

    Tell kids any online topic is fair game to openly ask parents about without reprimand. You were a kid once too. Keep explanations age appropriate.

    Conclusion

    The borderless digital world our kids inhabit requires equally limitless vigilance and communication from parents to protect them. While technology unquestionably enables predators, it also provides powerful tools to defend our families if applied diligently. Fortifying devices, supervising activity, using protective apps, and fostering an open dialogue are all essential. Online dangers will continue evolving, so our strategies must persist in parallel. With constant learning, adaption, and collaboration as parents, we can send the message to predators that our precious children are absolutely off limits, while giving our kids room to explore the digital realm safely.