Police recently arrested a Pennsylvania man who drove to Tennessee to meet and have sex with a minor girl he met via the Kik app. Sadly, this is a digital scenario that is happening more and more with 40% of teens now using the secretive app (according to Kik).
So why is Kik so popular with teens? There’s a few reasons. 1) Because users are allowed to create anonymous accounts 2) The app does not require users to verify age in any way 3) Parents who monitor texting, email, and networks like Instagram and Twitter usually skip looking for Kik altogether 4) Kik has a built-in web browser, games, and video access, which makes it a self-contained social network that is a fun place to hang out for teens.
This functionality and appeal also gives predators a virtual library of kids to prey upon. Thier #1 goal: To build digital trust and ultimately get a face-to-face meetup (sex) with a minor.
The kids running into issues with Kik are not a certain age, race, or income bracket. No one is exempt from the manipulative schemes of a predator. Predators are shrewd, conniving, mentally unbalanced people who spend hours and months searching out and “grooming” kids online. Their goal is to get a child to post sexual photos or to meet them in person to exploit them or hurt them. It’s what they do.
So how do you fight back against these unseen predators online? Lectures and instilling fear won’t go far in equipping your kids — especially since most tweens and teens will tell you over and over that they can spot a manipulator online (“Duh, mom, like I’d talk to a creepy perv online! Geeze, I’m not an idiot . . .”) Your job is to ignore your kid’s eye rolling and snark and press in with intentional parenting. Your job is also to be consistent and build up your child’s radar and digital street smarts, in spite of the eye rolling.
Be straight with your kids. Don’t sugar coat reality. Share news stories with them — even the uncomfortable details. Teach them about the tricks predators use and encourage them to be on the lookout for strangers who appear “too” friendly or too empathetic. Warn them that predators often are up on the latest movies, music, and trends in order to pose younger and interest kids in conversation. Predators will almost always say they are younger than they really are and use fake photos they know will appeal to a younger user.
Teach your kids that predators will often seduce their targets with compliments, kindness, and even gifts, which can encourage a child to let down their guard and be wooed into sexual advances. Remind them (a few hundred times) to never, ever meet a stranger in person.
Tips for parents:
- Communicate. Talk to your child often about sexual victimization and potential on-line danger. Share current news stories with your tweens and teens (make sure the see the ‘real’ faces behind the fake, friendly avatars).
- Explain “the why” behind not allowing Kik. Encourage them to use Facebook Messenger instead where anonymity is not allowed (although there are still workarounds to be aware of).
- Spend time with your children online. Have them teach you about their favorite apps, networks, and destinations. Ask about apps like SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, and if they happen to have Kik, now is a great time to ask them to open it up and show you around. If they hesitate, that’s a great sign, the app needs to go.
- Regularly monitor your child’s phone. And, keep laptops and family computers in a common room in the house, not in your child’s bedroom. It is much more difficult for a computer-sex offender to communicate with a child when the computer screen is visible to a parent or another member of the household.
- Utilize parental controls. Compare and contrast filters based on how your kids use their devices.
- Maintain access to your child’s online account(s) and randomly check his/her e-mail. Be aware that your child could be contacted through the U.S. Mail. Be up front with your child about your access and reasons why it is necessary.
- Teach your child the responsible use of the resources online. There is much more to the online experience than chat rooms.
- Understand, even if your child was a willing participant in any form of sexual exploitation, which he/she is not at fault and is the victim. The offender always bears the complete responsibility for his or her actions. (Partial source: FBI.com).
What are your child’s favorite digital hangouts? What do you know about the people they communicate with online?
Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family.