“MY CHILD HAS BEEN TALKING TO STRANGERS ONLINE”
Advice from Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley
Stella O’Malley is a mental health professional, bestselling author, and public speaker. Much of Stella’s counselling and writing focuses on mental health and the importance of well-being and she is a regular contributor to the Irish Independent and the Sunday Independent. Stella’s first highly acclaimed book, ‘Cotton Wool Kids’, was released in 2015 and her new bestseller ‘Bully-Proof Kids: Practical tools to help kids grow up confident, resilient and strong’ was released in 2017. Stella is currently working on her new book which focuses on overcoming anxiety and will be released by Gill Books in 2019.
Apply some rules
Children need certain rules regarding their online use and one of these rules needs to be an all-out ban on conversations with strangers. Until the child has matured sufficiently to be able to handle such conversations – for example, when they’re sixteen years old – the parents should consider installing sufficient parental controls on the devices in the household.
If the child comes to the parents explaining how they have defied the rules of the household and spoken to strangers online, it is very important that parents handle this situation with sensitivity and care. Losing your temper and locking away the devices for the foreseeable future simply drives the online behaviour underground. It is much more helpful for the parent to teach the children that some people aren’t who they seem online.
If your child feels threatened or if the conversations online suggest predatory or grooming behaviour then the parents need to go to the police to make a complaint.
Parents need to know what is going on in their child’s virtual world
Most parents know where their children are and who they are with when they are in the physical world; it is also necessary for parents to know what’s going on in their virtual world.
Many parents find it helpful to get buy-in from their children to be able to monitor their children’s social media. Some parents use the trust-but-verify approach while other parents believe the child’s privacy is more important and so they prefer instead to ensure the channels of communication are always open so the child will come to them if they are worried about online behaviour.
In many ways it doesn’t really matter which approach the parents take so long as the parents are completely engaged in their child’s online activity. Burying our heads in the sand and hoping for the best doesn’t really cut it anymore.
HOW TO TALK TO MY CHILD ABOUT ONLINE GROOMING
Tips on What is and is not “normal”
This can be done through a series of conversations where the parents refer to the many stories that are found in the media about online grooming, fake profiles and other elaborate online scams. The tragic story of Ronan Hughes can be a starting point: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/ronan-hughes-teenager-pleads-but-5892900
but there are many other equally frightening stories: https://www.meganmeierfoundation.org/megans-story.html
Make Your Child aware of how predators contact children
Parents need to make sure their children are aware that predators can use video games to make contact with children.
Parents also need to explain to their children about the boundaries that adults should respect when interacting with kids; that it is illegal to threaten someone online; and that sharing personal issues or information (like full names, addresses, schools ,etc.) with strangers is never a good idea.
It is important that parents keep open the connection with their children and the children are aware that they won’t be judged if they come to you for help.
Make sure your child knows they can speak to you and will not be in trouble
If parents can regularly chat with their children about online behaviour then they can educate and equip their children about how to discern inappropriate online behaviour from other behaviour.
YouTuber Coby Persin ran a social experiment to show how predators go online to lure children on social media: https://www.cnet.com/news/viral-video-shows-how-easily-predators-lure-kids-on-social-media/.
Stories like these are easy ways to start the conversation with children about online behaviour.
It is also important to tell the child’s school about this as these incidents tend to spread like wildfire within schools.
But it is not enough to go to the police and lodge a complaint; parents also need to monitor their children tech usage, they need to teach their children how to behave online and make sure they know what is appropriate and what is inappropriate and also the children need to know how they should respond to inappropriate content.
WARNING SIGNS TO WATCH OUT FOR ABOUT ONLINE GROOMING
Almost any child who is being groomed will become obsessively secretive about their phone and their devices.Constant checking and irrational rage if anyone else checks their phone is often a warning sign that things are not as they should be.New clothes, phones or other inexplicable possessions are also a warning sign that the child has an unapproved source of money.Episodes of anxiety, self-loathing and self-harming behaviour is a red flag that the child is unhappy and needs some professional help.
Make sure your child understands what grooming is
Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child for nefarious purposes but it is very important for parents to realise that many children don’t realise they are being groomed. Indeed the children often believe they have finally found a new friend who really understands and values them. This could be seen in the case of the sports journalist Tom Humphries who sent over 16,000 texts within a 3 month period to a young and vulnerable teenage girl: http://www.thejournal.ie/tom-humphries-sentence-3627181-Oct2017/ . Humphries was a powerful figure in the world of sport and this girl was a rising sports star who thought Humphries’ interest in her was because of her sports talent.
How Long They Spend Online
It is so important to remember that the amount of time your child spends online has a direct correlation with their mental health. The more time children are left unsupervised on the internet, the more danger they are in. The are left vulnerable to online groomers, depression and anxiety.
There is usually a power imbalance evident in online grooming but the power that is wielded from the online stranger can be subtle – they are often older, exciting and they can be subtle when they lure the children into sexualised behaviour.
These predators might compliment the child so much that the child feels pressurised into bestowing the predator with more images.
Stella O’Malley discusses real life cases she has dealt with in her practise
For example, Ciara was continually complimented by an online stranger for many months before the request came for more images. The images she first sent were entirely innocent but the appreciation was so intense she couldn’t help but feel pleased. As time went on the groomer began to highlight certain sections of her body and express his intense appreciation. Eventually Ciara succumbed and sent a sexualised image of herself. Once the predator has convinced the child to perform any sexual behaviour at all, many children become obsessively secretive and furtive about their tech usage and this was how Ciara’s mother noticed that all was not as it should be in Ciara’s life.  Names are changed
Other online groomers promise riches, fame or great success to the child.
Brian came to my counselling clinic filled with bravado about the various friends he had made online. Brian enjoyed playing video games with older guy; he was good at these games and he felt cooler and more sophisticated among the adult gamers. Brian described how one fellow gamer was a hotshot in the world of gaming and Brian believed that he would one day get a great job in this field through his online ‘friend’. This fellow gamer often turned the conversation towards a sexual nature but Brian was confident he could handle it. But it is very easy to turn a teenage boy on and the groomer eventually managed to do just this with Brian. He convinced Brian to perform a sex act online and from then on Brian was caught. Brian maintained this secret until he came to me for counselling about an entirely different matter.  Names have been changed
Final tips to take home
Be aware that the internet is an extremely dangerous place for children. Children need to be monitored online and rules and regulations around that is and is not acceptable behaviour online should be discussed regularly.
Teach your child about the dangers of online gaming, social media and the risks that come with being online.
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