Teens and Online Predators

by Tony Lindsey

Editor’s Note: What’s your child posting online? Experts recommend that parents monitor how much information their kids reveal about themselves. MySpace and similar sites like Xanga are extremely popular among teens and young adults who post profiles, photos and blogs—often chock-full of revealing personal details for all the world (including predators) to see. As the number of teens on the Net rises, so do the worries about keeping them safe. Membership in MySpace has jumped from zero to more than 50 million in just two years. The Rainbow Babies recently asked computer expert and Mac guru, “Papa” Tony Lindsey his thoughts and opinions on this timely and important subject.

The best I can offer you is a few of my own thoughts, after raising kids of my own. I’ve used the feminine pronoun here because our female children are more likely to be the targets of online predators, but please employ these same techniques with your male children too. They can be just as vulnerable. And although teens are more likely to be targets, please also start this education process early, some web experts have suggested as early as nine years old.

  1. There are a lot of bad people in the world, and ALL of them are online. They see ignorant, innocent teens and they see easy meat. There is NOTHING you can do to keep her away from her favorite online hangouts if she’s determined - she can just head to the library and dive right back in. This is especially true in the age of internet cafés and BlackBerries. MySpace and FaceBook are HUGELY popular with teenagers nowadays - they are the “Lou’s Soda Shoppe” of the modern age. It’s kinda creepy, because you can have a lot of friendlike objects that you never actually MEET, in the flesh. But, it’s the current thing going on, so it’s not going to go away.
  2. I’ve found that the best approach is to be brutally honest about the incredibly high probability of being groomed and then attacked. Those “Have you seen me?” milk cartons and “Amber Alert” signs on the freeway are the most-visible examples of the need to handle this NOW. If she runs into Mister Predator online, she’s not dealing just with him, she’s dealing with his huge network of buddies who share success stories, pictures and videos (they constitute great porn for that crowd). He and his peers are constantly honing their techniques together, every single day. Open-hearted, innocent little tootsies are their designated prey.
Parental Monitoring

Here’s what I would do in the same circumstance:

  1. I’d bring her to a neutral space - a nice, high-end restaurant with a private booth. Everybody should dress up and do it up right. The setting will enforce the specialness of the occasion. I’d tell her that this was the most important conversation that you have ever had together up to this point, and that you are not speaking to her as “Parent to Stupid Little Child”, but as “Adult to Adult in Training”. That ALWAYS get their attention. She’ll be in full recording mode from that moment on.
  2. Now, in these few paragraphs, I’m going to say “I’d recommend saying this or that”, but your daughter should be able to contribute at least fifty percent of the conversation. Don’t just hand down Royal Proclamations from above, and don’t gang up on her. Teenagers hate that! Ask her what she thinks, and LISTEN. If necessary, designate the Salt Shaker of Truth… As long as one person holds that magical salt-shaker, NOBODY else can talk until it is voluntarily relinquished. It really opens up the conversation, and a lot more truth shows up. If you have to, set a timed, five-minute limit per person.
  3. Now is not the time to say “Because I say so, that’s why!” Open up and be as real as possible. Temporarily, you’re not her parents, you’re fellow adults, remember? That’s the advantage of being on “neutral ground” - Both sides are off of their turf, so that communication can flow more smoothly than usual. It adds a sense of occasion, so that it will be more impressive and memorable for all concerned.
  4. You have ownership of a lot of responsibility for the situation (and you should admit this - she’ll be impressed). You’ve done your best to make sure that the home environment (the “nest”) has been as safe as possible. This would have been a very good thing to do in 1907, but the harshest parts of the world have no respect for the borders of your home nowadays. The problem with ultra-safe upbringings is that they don’t help youngsters to develop “street smarts”, and they become prey if communication fails between the parents and the youngsters.
  5. I’d tell her that you are NOT going to throw up a firewall between her and her MySpace buddies. Tell her that you are quite aware of her activities there. Tell her why you snooped, and what your thought-processes were. Tell her that you would rather NOT snoop, and want to redefine your relationship to match her age and level of adulthood.
  6. I would tell her that posting the phone number online is hideously hazardous for YOU, your household and your belongings, and not just for her. It’s NOTHING for a predator to do a reverse-lookup on the phone-number and get a map to your place in under ten seconds. Some folks probably even have the process automated. I could do it in one click. She’s messing with everything that you’ve got, frankly, and she needs to “toughen up” her attitude, fast. Online is not the place to be tender and juicy and available - It’s a place to be tough, cynical and armor-plated.
  7. Tell her that she’s a mature, responsible young adult and that you trust her, and really mean it. Yes, she screwed up briefly, but it’s a blip until something really bad happens, which it hasn’t. It can be changed, and you can enter a new phase of mutual communication. Transform it from a problem to a possibility. Make some new rules for 2007, but make them together, based on mutual agreements. She’s 17, and she can handle more responsibilities, and is more likely to do so, if she gets to make her own rules.
  8. If she doesn’t follow up, and STILL does stuff that jeopardizes your household, then sell her computer. Let the hammer fall, because she didn’t take you seriously enough. She can buy her next computer when she’s got a place of her own. This is life-or-death stuff, not some stupid game.

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