Online Predators, and How Parents Should Deal with Them

“Oh my gosh, did you know that Nick Jonas was just caught with the Hollywood It Girl? Kate must be soooo mad!!!”

Danielle, a 13-year-old girl, often exchanges direct messages with her followers, so she isn’t surprised to see this question pop up on her phone. The message comes from a guy who identifies himself as David, an aspiring teen actor who just moved to town. They exchange a few more messages and he “seems nice,” so when David asks her to meet up the next day she agrees and gives him her cell number.

David starts texting her that night, sending a headshot, then a “muscle-shot,” and asks for a photo of her. David looks much older than expected, so Danielle gets weirded out and starts ignoring his texts. He gets persistent, and even aggressive, saying he’ll show her a lot more if she doesn’t respond. She responds with, “Stop texting me.”

Three days later, Danielle takes a call from an unknown number. It’s David. She immediately tells him to stop contacting her and hangs up. Scared to contact police or tell her parents for fear of getting in trouble, Danielle tries to distract herself by looking at Instagram photos.

Because of the Internet and social media, today’s kids are meeting more people than any previous generation. Unfortunately, like in the story above, they're not just meeting friends or teachers — they’re also meeting online predators who use a fake identity to try to lure teenagers, often into sexual acts.

What, then, can parents do to stop kids from meeting online predators?

In one study, 454 parents and their children participated in a research project on youth and Internet behaviors. The researchers assumed that most parents would underestimate how often children engage in risky online behavior, including unsafe interactions with strangers and exposure to sexual material. The goal of the study was to identify what contributed to this misconception.

Parents were asked, “How often has your child been approached online by a worrisome stranger?” For the children, the same question was phrased to distinguish what type of stranger they may have met: (1) an adult stranger that seemed interested in a sexual or romantic relationship, (2) someone who wanted to meet in real life, or (3) someone who was “just weird.” Parents were also asked how frequently they thought their child had been exposed to sexual content by accident or by intentionally seeking it out.

What did they find? One of the major findings was that parents who had poor communication with their kids were more likely to underestimate how safe their kids were online. Moreover, children who found it hard to talk with their parents were less likely to tell them about strangers they met online. These findings were similar to another study in which only half the children surveyed remembered being warned by their parents about talking online to strangers.

In their discussion, the authors describe the third-person hypothesis," which proposes that people think that media messages are more harmful to others than themselves. Third-person perceptions in the study significantly increased the odds that parents would underestimate whether their child had been approached by a worrisome stranger. The authors speculate that parents who have a strong third-person orientation may assume that their child is smarter than other kids and, therefore, less at risk to be lured into a face-to-face meeting with a stranger.

So, how does this study provide answers about what parents can do to stop their kids from meeting online predators? For one, parents need to start communicating with children at a much younger age about online risks.

Children as young as 3 are starting to use digital devices, and estimates suggest that up to 90% or more of 12- to 18-year-old kids have access to the Internet. Society teaches that the “Birds and the Bees” talk should be the first sex talk that parents should have with their kids, but these days, parents should begin educating kids about risqué content and online predators well before that talk. This pre-“birds and bees” talk, which I call “The Birds and the Bees, Part 1,” should occur between ages 6 to 9. Yes, it’s unfortunate that kids need to be exposed to this conversation at such an early age, but it’s important to teach them about the risks they face. There’s no doubt this discussion adds another layer of complexity to the already-hard job of parenting, but the conversation doesn’t necessarily have to go into lurid detail. Instead, the idea is to open a line of dialogue and make kids aware that a parent is a safe adult and the primary person they should talk to if something online makes them feel uncomfortable or scared.

The findings from the study described above also have important implications for the increasing rates of cyberbullying happening among kids. And as you may imagine, parents underestimate their kids’ risk of being cyberbullied, too, but more about that in a future post.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com