Dr. Corinne Masur
Did your child get new video games over the holidays? When you were busy cooking/cleaning/decorating/celebrating, did you let your child play for a while?
Everyone did, of course. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But did you know that on any game platform where chatting is possible, children, even small children, are sometimes playing – and chatting – with adults?
You may think the answer is no, you didn’t know that, and no, they are not chatting with adults.
But this IS happening. And not all of the adults have good intentions.
A short time ago, according to a New York Times article (12/8/19), a dad was playing an online game with his five-year-old daughter and one of the characters suddenly said to his daughter’s character, “Who are you?” The dad didn’t know that chatting was even possible on this game!
Also recently, according to the article, one teenage girl struck up a friendship with another teenaged girl while gaming online. They had a lot in common. They exchanged Facebook information and began to communicate regularly. They even looked a bit alike. After several months, the second girl asked if the first girl would send her a picture of herself partially naked. She said she was feeling insecure about her own body. After the first girl sent the photo, the second girl asked her for more. When the first girl said no, the second girl threatened her saying “if you don’t I will send the photo you already sent to all your friends.” The girl refused again and told her mother who contacted the police. The “girl” asking for photos turned out to be a 24 year old man. When the first girl went off to college she shared her experience of having been threatened online and MOST of the girls she talked to had had the same or a similar experience.
This is happening to children of all ages, boys and girls alike. Children initially often like the attention they’re getting and, after weeks or months of “friendship,” they’re often asked to do innocuous things that later escalate into less innocuous things. They are often threatened if they do not comply. Children believe the threats and can feel terribly anxious and guilty, as if they are the ones doing something bad. And this guilt is what interferes with telling their parents.
How can you keep your child safe?
Here are some pointers:
- Set rules for online behavior with your children.
- Tell you children you are setting the rules because you love them and want them to be safe.
- Set rules for how much time they can have online (not too much – see our prior post on this)
- Set rules for what content they are allowed to watch (age appropriate and pro-social).
- Let your children know that at their age online access is a privilege, not a right.
- Go to Common Sense Media and the Australian e-safety Commissioner website for for summaries of new apps and their safety rating.
- Let your children know that you expect them to treat others well online and that they should expect to be treated well themselves.
- Brainstorm with your child about strategies they can use to stay safe and under what circumstances they should tell you what is going on.
- Tell them in no uncertain terms that if anyone asks then to do ANYTHING, especially something they feel uncomfortable about, they have NOTHING to feel guilty about; it is the other person who is doing something wrong. And they have the right to say NO.
- Tell your child that other children have been threatened online and educate them about this. Tell them that the threats that are made are just to get them to do what the other person wants them to do. No one is going to come to hurt them or your family – and tell them that you will ALWAYS take their side if something like this happens so they can tell you about it.
- Keep the conversation open and non-punitive.
- Do not threaten punishment as this can push children to gaming in secret.
- Find out how to block inappropriate content and/or other users for inappropriate conduct and show your child how to do this themselves.
- Above all, try to help your child to understand that you are in favor of them having fun online, but that you want them to know how to protect themselves and to stay safe.