Growing up in an averagely strict household at the dawn of social media, I remember being monitored as I sat on the internet, tempted to log on to the new and upcoming social networking sites (SNS) but being dissuaded from them. But the biggest threat I ever faced was receiving emails from an unknown email address known as “Prince Charming.” He would occasionally send me a joke or two that were entertaining enough to keep me curious and not send him to the spam folder. But that was till the emails started getting vulgar. At the age of 12, I had learned first-hand about the presence of predators on the glorious world wide web!
Statistics show that "93% of teens (12-17) go online," and "73% of teens (12-17) have cell phones." Both the extent of access to the internet and the intensity of usage are rising at an alarming pace. And the dangers on the internet today are not just limited to lying about one’s identity in an email - there are darker corners that lurk behind simple looking html pages, from a simple fake identity on a chat room to serious crimes such as phishing and child pornography.
So, let’s try and list out a few of the most common threats that your tween/ teen might be facing out there, that you need to watch out for.
Underage Social Networking. Most social networks only permit users if they are adults, i.e above 18. Sites like Facebook accept members above 13 years. But all it takes is to simply enter a different date of birth - there is no way that age can be checked online. And more often than not, curious - and rebellious - kids lie on these pages and create profiles exposing themselves to a world of unknown perils. The constant need to update applications like Instagram and Snapchat allow the world to peek into our lives more closely than we’d want them to. Snapchat recently added a feature that now allows people to view where you are on the map. Falling into the wrong hands, this feature can seriously be misused by predators who thanks to these applications now know where the child is, where he/ she has been, who are his/ her acquaintances and so much more.
Gaming: The first thing that comes out of today’s online gaming has to be the extent of violence and sexual objectification that takes place during them. One of the most common games, Grand Theft Auto has children running around the streets driving over people and killing them, while scantily dressed escorts roam the streets and interact with the character every now and then. For someone above 18 who already knows what choices to make in life, this game might still be acceptable, but for someone below that who is still in their cognitive process of growing up? No.
The second aspect of online gaming is security. Gaming sites allow the user to create a username and play while interacting with others who are playing the game simultaneously.
Quite often, predators join such networks while pretending to be gamers of the same age and attempt to interact with children, often luring them into sexual acts or even eliciting money out of them, Quite a few of these sites prohibit the usage of certain words, but after a certain time your child might get bored of such sites and try to look elsewhere exploring him to a wider range of accepted vocabulary along with a wider range of predators. It is essential to monitor your child’s activities on such sites, their profile and who they talk to and explain to them the possible dangers. Have a gamer? Talk!
Cyber Bullying: This is not an uncommon aspect. Bullying takes place at all levels of social life. Be it school, home or online, children get bullied by siblings, friends, or worse - an unknown person. There are various behaviours that could be classifies as acts of social bullying:
Usage of offensive names for someone
Usage of mean comments
Constant stalking and messaging disregarding the person’s comfort level
Public/ private humiliation
Creating fake IDs of a person and impersonating them
Hacking into social media accounts and sending unwelcome or unintended messages to their acquaintances
Sending threatening or provoking messages
Often, innocent fun on social media escalates into a case of cyberbullying. The leak of one unsolicited video or picture could turn one into a viral joke which can - at its most innocent - hamper levels of self-confidence in young teenagers very easily. Across the world, there have been cases of depression or even suicide, all tracing back to cyber bullying. You don't want your child to both perpetrate or be at the receiving end of bullying. So talk about social etiquette online and what to do if your child is unwittingly hit by a bully.
Cyber Security: Along with the many risks that are there on social media, cyber security is an important one as well. Something parents should definitely keep an eye out for to keep their child safe. Risks such as ID theft, phishing, leaking of private content, malware, theft of funds, etc are just naming a few. There have been cases where malware has been able to access the webcam and the microphone of computers and laptops to see or hear what is happening around it. There have also been cases of people impersonating on gaming websites to obtain private information of card details thus leading to dangers of kidnapping or theft. While these cases aren’t common, but the culprits of these crimes are abundant out there. From social media to emails to gaming websites, these criminals are all around waiting to trick young children into divulging the information they need. It is necessary for young ones to share as little information on social media pages as possible, especially with those they don’t know.
Sexual Content: As mentioned before, there is sufficient sexual content present in most of the games, sexualisation and objectification of women, probably at a level deeper than what can be comprehended by young children. But due to constant exposure, they run the risk of being conditioned by this. Some sites that they access also have unwelcome links to adult websites which could lead them to pages which offer pornographic video content. The exposure of pornographic content at such an age has various dangers in its own self, to name a few
Leave traumatizing thoughts
Disrupt emotional and mental cognition
Can trigger aggressiveness
Viewing of women as sexual objects
Can also lead to acting out in terms of inappropriate sexual behaviour
There have been cases where children at young ages have acted out sexually, and try to force themselves on younger and more vulnerable children, clinicians and psychologists have observed an increase in the number of children seeking help for acting out sexually. Studies have shown that children when exposed to internet porn may start to believe that sexual gratification is available without the need for affection from the partner as that’s what they see. These attitudes might get hardwired into their persona, affecting their future relationships and leading them towards sexual compulsions and addictions.
Online Grooming: The biggest danger of all that is present on today’s internet is the presence of paedophiles, who mask themselves with fake identity and attempt to befriend your tween/ teen children. They ‘groom’ the child into believing them and becoming friends with them. Often these predators may also convince them to engage into online relationships with them, thus leading towards romantic and eventually sexual conversations. The need of an online paedophile doesn’t end there. It extends towards pushing for compromising pictures or videos from the young ones. These pictures may be further publicised and misused on pornographic sites. They are also used to blackmail the children later. These predators often also push their ‘friends’ towards meeting them with their motives being towards sexual acts.
"People who do not believe that their children could ever become victimized online are living in an unrealistic world. Regardless of if your child makes 'As' or not, that child has the potential to become victimized through online technologies. I think it is very important for parents of all socioeconomic status and with all different roles in society to take this problem very seriously."
—Melissa Morrow, Supervisory Special Agent, Child Exploitation Squad, FBI
According to the FBI, anyone could be a predator. The predator doesn’t have a special profile or type. There have been cases of doctors, teachers and so many more "friendly neighbourhood people" who in reality turned out to be child predators. For the predator, the internet allows ease of access to multiple victims with the shield of anonymity.
Groomers are known to develop relationships with the children by building a rapport with them, that eventually leads to them depending on the groomer for emotional needs. The groomer then develops a romantic and controlling relationship with the child, pushing them towards distancing themselves from their parents, exchange of sexual media and trying to test the child’s sexual limits. The ultimate aim of the groomer is to meet the child for a sexual encounter which might also involve him blackmailing the child with pre-exchanged sexual media.
So, what is a parent to do? One can hardly shut down the march of technology in one's own living room. But everything starts with transparency, trust and TALK. Don't be afraid to talk to your child about these dangers. Just make sure you approach the topic with less pedantism and more acceptance. It is necessary for parents to have open and one-on-one conversations with their children, asking questions in a non-threatening manner. While it is impossible to keep a tab on each and every activity of the child on the internet, it is crucial for the children to be educated about the prevalent threats to they make the right decisions as early as they can without endangering themselves.