What Leads a Child to Connect with Strangers Online?

At a recent ladies’ get-together, discussion about the murky world of online grooming, cyber stalking, and identity thieves found its way to our lunch table. Everyone had a story to relate about Facebook friends turning kidnappers, handsome teens in chatrooms turning out to be adult men, children revealing personal details while playing online games and so on.

The women had different ideas about why children have no qualms about talking to strangers online and why parents remain in the dark about this behaviour.

This discussion led me to do some deep-thinking on this very pertinent, and in today’s context, very important issue. The online world is exciting no doubt, and one can make many more friends here than in the real world, but there is also the associated risk of stranger-danger. Children know it and they consciously avoid strangers who try to befriend them in the mall or fairground but show little of the prudence online.

Why do children befriend, trust and follow strangers online?

The obvious reasons that pop right out are:

  • Children are curious by nature and are always on the lookout for excitement
  • Shy, lonely and socially uncomfortable children may find it easier to connect and chat online than face-to-face
  • Peer influence leads children to get interested in online networking
  • Despite being aware of cyber bullies, stalkers and groomers; children ignore these threats due to the lack foresight and experience
  • Those from disturbed families seek affection and company of online friends
  • Most kids react without thinking things through. They find it difficult to resist friendship invitations from people they find fascinating
  • Children with low self-esteem often look to online communities for acceptance
  • Overly critical and strict parenting style is also another major reason
  • Teens like to connect with other teens of the same/opposite sex

What can go wrong if children spend excessive time on social media platforms?

  • They will lose the desire for real life socializing
  • It will affect their ability to initiate and carry-on interpersonal communication
  • They will become less tolerant and remote in their attitude towards people
  • They might eveal personal information to data thieves
  • They may become targets for pedophiles or cyberbullies
  • They can be exposed to inappropriate content and language
  • They can initiate or indulge in cyberbullying themselves

Chances are high that your child is a rational, happy, confident person, secure in your love and appreciation. As I mentioned earlier, such children also chat with strangers, but it is with the intention of making new friends, something like the penpals of our time. They don’t look for appreciation or love or a confidante – they have someone at home for that. Clear instructions on appropriate online behaviour, cyber safety measures and monitoring are enough to keep them safe. However, it is advisable not to allow children to sign up on chat sites that have no age restrictions. Also, it pays to do a thorough check up of all the messaging sites the children are on – not all are safe. I had named quite a few in a previous blog.

Should we be worried about this trend of ignoring the stranger-danger threat online? I think so, especially when children don’t tell their parents about these friends and go out to meet them in person. The McAfee Tween Teen Technology Report 2014 revealed that 66% of the respondents felt more accepted online, while 71% admitted to interacting with strangers online. These are serious stats.

And if that does not offer enough reason to give your child the cyber safety talk, just read this article on the creation of a fake profile of a girl by Terre Des Hommes, a children’s rights organization,  to investigate online predators and its astounding findings.

Often parents complain, “My child does not listen to me, especially when it comes to online activities.”

My contention is that children WILL listen to parents; they are conditioned to do so. They also accept that parents are better equipped to judge a person’s nature and intention than themselves. You have to be clear, firm and precise in your message to them. This requires for you to be aware of the related dangers. Be loving, but set rules. Also, set penalties for breaking rules. You can begin with these three basic rules for tweens and teens going online:

RULE NO. 1: No interacting with strangers online, without the consent of parents

RULE NO. 2: No going out, to meet online friends in person, whether alone or with friends

RULE NO. 3: No sharing of name, address, phone no, pic, videos with anyone online

Tweens and teens require a lot of emotional support; ensure they get it all at home. A relationship based on trust, love and frank communication will ensure children to confide and share their online issues with you. Be there for them. Be cyber aware for them. And teach them to Stop.Think.Connect!

Stay safe online folks!

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