Teen on phone and laptop laying on bed

The internet, social media and multiplayer gaming have expanded the way that students communicate and interact with their peers. Social media and online gaming allow kids the chance to connect with their IRL friends and to cast a wider net to meet new “friends”. Many kids even remove privacy settings in order to attract more friends or followers – engagement and validation is that important to them. For teenagers who struggle to make friends in real life, the safety provided by connecting online can give them the security they need to be confident and outgoing with new people.

Kids want to be liked and feel like they belong, so any positive attention can be enticing. Positive attention, in itself, is not problematic. However, the motivation behind that attention is not always what it seems, and children and adults must be aware of how to recognize when positive attention comes with bad intentions. Whether that positive attention comes from a total stranger, an acquaintance from school or a friend of a friend, it is key for families and kids to know warning signs of when online interactions cross into the realm of grooming and manipulation. 

Many families have heard of online grooming and are aware that it exists. Many kids are also aware of the danger. However, while safety is a huge concern for parents/guardians, kids do not always share the same concerns. They have lived in a digital world from the beginning – maneuvering through their digital lives and the ups and downs associated with it seems normal to them. Meeting people online seems like a normal experience to them, and some kids even prefer building close relationships online over taking the social risks of building close relationships in their real lives. 

Some kids even utilize apps or features of apps that facilitate the process of meeting strangers. Kids are curious and like to push limits and communicating with somebody “off limits” can seem exciting and enticing. 

Any website, game, app or platform that allows people to communicate with each other can be used for grooming: chat rooms, multiplayer games, private messages/DMs through social media sites/apps. When families and kids learn more about how easy it is for someone to create a whole new, fake identity and have a good understanding of how apps used to intentionally mask one’s identity work, they are better prepared to protect themselves and the young people in their lives.

The concerns that parents/guardians have when their kids interact in-person with people they don’t know should be similar –  if not amplified – when it comes to their digital lives. Parents/guardians need to think twice about allowing kids to freely explore online communities without first having discussions or setting some rules and boundaries. 

What is grooming?
Online grooming is the process by which someone befriends a child online and builds up their trust with the intention of exploiting them and causing them harm.

  • Online groomers may use a fake profile
  • Groomers build trust between themselves and their target
  • Online groomers are not always strangers

Some Helpful Common Sense Education Resources

Online Risk Resources FBI
The most important advice for parents is to have open and ongoing conversations about safe and appropriate online behavior.

  • Educate yourself about the websites, software, games, and apps that your child uses.
  • Check their social media and gaming profiles and posts. Have conversations about what is appropriate to say or share.
  • Encourage kids to choose appropriate screen names and to create strong passwords.
  • Make sure your kids use privacy settings to restrict access to their online profiles.
  • Tell your children to be extremely wary when communicating with anyone online who they do not know in real life.
  • Make it a rule with your kids that they can’t arrange to meet up with someone they met online without your knowledge and supervision.
  • Report any inappropriate contact between an adult and your child to law enforcement immediately. Additionally, notify the site or platform where the online contact was initiated. 

In this day and age it is unrealistic for parents/guardians to think that kids will never interact with strangers in person or online. As Stephen Balkam (founder and chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute) states, “The line has blurred between our online and offline worlds. Experts are advising parents to weigh risks and rewards. It’s about you as a parent helping your kids manage the risk in order to get the rewards of playing games online or meeting people on social media.”