Social Media is the perfect hunting ground for potential kidnappers
Kids are spending more time indoors and the way they socialize is changing. As parents, we think we are keeping our kids safe by keeping them in the house under our watchful gaze. But how safe are they really? Time spent with friends outside of the home is being replaced by socializing on the Internet – in chat rooms, playing online games and on social media. Most of our kids’ online activity is harmless and fun, but a growing percentage of children are falling victim to online predators and even kidnappers.
Risks of Social Media
More and more children and teens are active on social media, yet many are unaware of the potential dangers of engaging with others online. The inherent dangers of social media are magnified by the fact that many children engage in risky online behavior. Studies have shown that most kids are more than happy to ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ people on social media sites whom they have never met in real life. Furthermore, an alarming number of teens are happy to give out personal information to people they don’t know or to create personal profiles that include their picture, address, phone number, name of their school and their interests.
Having put themselves out there for all to see, there seems to be some kudos attached to attracting friends and followers. It’s a 21st century popularity contest for many. The struggle to get more ‘likes’ and have more ‘friends’ is real for today’s teens. This makes social media the ideal hunting ground for online predators and would-be kidnappers who are happy to invest many hours seeking out the children who might easily be targeted.
Recent studies have also discovered that teenagers’ natural curiosity and desire for independence means that they are quite willing to engage with these new, so-called friends – chatting to them, revealing more information about themselves and even agreeing to meet with them in person. The need for predators to pretend to be someone of a similar age also seems to be diminishing, as teenagers are not afraid of chatting to someone older and don’t see this as a particular threat.
How online predators operate
Kids enjoy posting profiles, pictures and other information about themselves on social media and it doesn’t take a huge investment of time or effort for online predators to find and target their victims. Having been allowed into a child’s life – through ‘friending’, ‘following’, chatrooms or online gaming – predators have demonstrated that they have considerable patience when it comes to gaining a child’s trust. They don’t even have to pretend to be a kid anymore; they simply need to portray themselves as someone cool to talk to, someone who uniquely understands the child and makes themselves available to them no matter what the time of day or night. Teenagers who are alienated from their parents are the easiest target and predators are happy to provide a listening ear.
Another way that online predators can establish a rapport with their victims is by studying personal profiles and pictures on social media to discover the child’s interests. They can then pretend to like the same things, which generates excitement and curiosity in the victim – there appears to be an instant connection.
Sadly these online connections with strangers often lead to grooming for the purposes of sexual exploitation and, more rarely, to kidnapping. It is estimated that 50,000 sexual predators are online at any given time and that 50% of sex crimes committed against a minor involve a perpetrator obtaining information and/or pictures from social media sites. Shocking statistics reveal how easily children who have been groomed for some time can be persuaded to meet with a stranger in the real world. According to the Enough is Enough organisation, 16% of teenagers considered meeting someone they had only talked to online, whilst 8% had actually done so. Of those who did meet strangers face-to-face, 75% did so on more than one occasion.
With many children seemingly willing to meet strangers they only know through social media, the incidence of forced abduction (where the victim is grabbed and held by force) is rare. However, there can be no doubt that engaging with strangers online heightens the risk of kidnapping, as predators can easily identify victims, discover their location, groom them and lure them to a face-to-face meeting.
Keeping kids safe online
Any child can become a victim of an online predator. Given the dangers of social media, it’s tempting to parents to enforce a blanket ban on all such sites, as well as chat rooms, online games, bulletin boards, video sharing sites and so on. Yet this is the world we live in now and such a ban can easily lead to alienation from your children, which in turn can lead to secrecy and more danger. However, there are some precautions parents can take to keep kids safe online.
- Educate your kids
It’s crucial that kids are made aware of the dangers of using social networking sites. Even if the incidences of kidnapping are small, the incidences of sexual exploitation, grooming and cyberbullying are alarmingly high. Children need to know how much information is too much information and that they should not be posting personal information such as their age, address, phone number and school anywhere on the internet. You should also explain why it is never a good idea to accept friend or follow requests from people they do not know.
- Know what’s out there
Be aware of which social media sites your kids and their friends are using and do some research on the safety of each one. Have a discussion with your child about the inherent dangers and decide which sites/Apps are acceptable and which are not.
- Enable safety features on all devices
‘Geotagging’ on mobile devices should be disabled so that a child’s location is not disclosed. This can be done on most devices in the ‘Settings’ menu. In addition, you should discourage your child from ‘checking in’, a popular feature of most social media sites. ‘Checking in’ also allows people to pinpoint someone’s exact location at the time of posting.
- Enhance privacy settings
All social media sites have privacy settings and you should try to make your child’s social media posts as private as possible. The default privacy setting on many sites is ‘public’ and many sites revert to this when updates are installed. Therefore it is worth checking privacy settings regularly. Talk to your child about why this is important and consider making it a condition of allowing them to register on a given site.
- Don’t let kids flag up their age
Online predators are adept at identifying children. Discourage your child from using photos of themselves or usernames/screen names that flag them up as being a minor.
- Know your child’s passwords
Ask your child to give you the passwords for all their devices, as well as login information. This may meet with some resistance at first, but explain to your child why this is important. Not only is checking up on their online activity from time to time one way to protect them from predators or bullies, it can also be critical if a child does go missing.
- Monitor online activity
With the danger to children online rising day by day, it is important that we as parents do everything we can to keep them safe. Monitoring your child’s online activity is one way to do so and monitoring software can help.
Perhaps the most efficient way of keeping kids safe is by keeping the lines of communication with your child open. Positive relationships and discussions with your child about the risks they face will make them less likely to become victims and will enable them to come to you if they feel uncomfortable or threatened online.