Gen Z is a generation of digital natives who are immersed in the exciting, ever-changing online world. And the connection they experience online can be a wonderful thing, especially after the intense isolation of COVID-19 pandemic. While some of our kids have learned how to navigate the internet in safe ways on their own, it’s important for us to further their awareness of its dangers—one danger being online predators.
There are many examples in the mainstream media of manipulative, predatory figures like in Netflix’s popular show You. This show features Joe who is an obsessive, love-struck stalker who tries everything to get closer to the ones he loves. Throughout the series, he justifies his stalking, digital manipulation, verbal abuse, isolation, and more to maintain control of his romantic relationships. But it’s important to remember how predatory tactics are more than just plot points, and that they don't always look exactly the way they're represented in TV shows.
Signs of predatory behavior and online grooming
When it comes to our kids, we want to make sure that they’re prepared to navigate this danger if they are ever pursued by an older stranger online, as well as how to notice warning signs of manipulation in all of their online relationships. Manipulation is tricky and it can be especially hard to recognize when it’s happening to you. The best way to do so is to become familiar with the warning signs. So, go through these signs with your teen and make sure they know to be suspicious of someone who is...
- Asking for pictures, video chat, and personal information regularly. Pictures or videos can range from a simple selfie to something sexual and explicit. Predators may also try to seek personal information to make their manipulation more persuasive, either by asking directly or by stalking online accounts.
- Overly controlling and persistent. Predators can use overly controlling, persistent, and aggressive behavior to get others to do what they want. If your teen comes across someone who is aggressively pursuing them, encourage them to report this activity, especially if they were already coerced in some way or feel trapped in the situation.
- Secretly sending money or gifts. Predators may send things to those they wish to manipulate in order to gain their trust. On the other hand, they may also request money or other objects after they've already earned the other’s trust. If your teen is ever asked to send something or has received gifts from a stranger, help them analyze the situation and act accordingly if it seems like it could be manipulation.
- Reluctant or vague about their own personal information. Many predators will either fake an online persona (with fake pictures, personal info, etc.) or only share the bare minimum. Encourage your teen to be skeptical whenever a stranger pursues them online. If the person pursuing them gives information that feels vague, confusing, or fabricated, encourage them to cut all contact with them and report the suspicious behavior.
- Constantly pushing boundaries. What starts off as a casual relationship can turn into something much deeper. If your teen feels like someone is constantly asking more and more of them, they should report the activity to someone they trust who can help them get out of the situation. (Unfortunately, sometimes this is easier said than done. Some teens may feel fearful of what will happen if someone finds out they’ve been doing things for someone online.)
- Create feelings of guilt. If someone is involved with a predator, the victim is often made to feel like they are the one at fault. Despite being true victims, they are often blamed by their predator and feel trapped by what they perceive to be mistakes of their own.
One thing to keep under consideration if your kid is ever involved with an online predator is that they could be emotionally attached or ashamed of what they are doing. So, be gentle and let them know they will not be in trouble and that they don’t deserve to be manipulated or mistreated in that way. Create a space of love and vulnerability so they can take the first step out of this toxic relationship.
Being prepared with your teen
According to Digital Mists, the odds of your teen being pursued by an older predator online are slim, but when it happens it can be extremely dangerous. So, go through these tips with your teen so that they can confidently answer this question: “What should you do if you feel you have been contacted by an online predator?”
- Don’t trust strangers with personal information. Encourage your teen to be cautious with their personal information before they establish a close relationship with anyone online. If they think someone seems trustworthy, they should still be careful with what they share and seek guidance from a parent or guardian before sharing things like their phone number, address, or other social media accounts.
- Seek help when you’re unsure. The complicated online world has many avenues for scammers and online predators to thrive. Don’t take risks alone when dealing with strangers. Even when a situation seems safe, encourage your teen to practice caution and get a second opinion from a mentor, parent, or guardian that they know they can trust. While not everyone is unworthy of our trust, it’s vital that we all practice healthy skepticism and suspicion with people we don’t know very well.
- “You’re not at fault.” If your teen ever gets involved with suspicious activity online, they may feel too guilty to seek help and may need to hear these words from you. Let them know that if this ever happens to them, or is happening to them now, the blame falls on the predator. They are the victim in the situation and the negative emotions they’re feeling towards themselves are misplaced. Encourage your teen to extend grace to themselves and let them know you’re there to support them.
While part of predator prevention lies with our teens’ cautious online activity, at first they may not be willing to fully confess what’s been going on. So, our teens’ safety can also require us watching out for warning signs. Here are some tips to remember as you think through this issue:
- Watch out for strange or withdrawn behavior. While some alone time can be healthy, sometimes it can also be an indicator of poor mental health and that your teen is going through something. For tips on how to talk with your teen about their isolation, click here. Additionally, look out for strange or secretive behavior that isn’t normal for them. If you find that your teen is closing tabs or screens quickly, making secretive phone calls, sending gifts to unspecified friends, etc., this may be a sign they’re contacting someone they shouldn’t be.
- Avoid reaction, practice compassion. Yes, there can be a lot of fear in this issue. But when our teens confide in us, we should translate our concerns to them in a gentle way, so we don’t push them away or make them regret coming to us. Take a deep breath, and calmly ask them to explain what's going on. Listen to them, talk with them about how best to move forward, and let them know that they, under no circumstances, deserve to be manipulated or treated that way.
- Predators can show up anywhere. While it’s easier to think that predators would be someone from outside of your social circle, the reality is they can show up anywhere. We should evaluate all the relationships happening in our teens’ lives. Just because someone seems nice doesn’t mean they’re innocent. On the other hand, obviously not everyone is a predator and we shouldn’t arouse suspicion or become paranoid. Watch for evidence, and then follow it.
Taking a deep breath
We just threw a lot of heavy information at you! If you've never had a conversation like this with your teen, talking about it can feel awkward and difficult, and it can be easy to get swept away in the fear of what might happen. We encourage you to take a deep breath, start this conversation with your teen, and let them know that you will be by their side in all situations.
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” —Isaiah 41:10
The world is a scary place, but we can place all of our hopes and fears in God. So, our last tip for when you're dealing with this issue is to confide in God. Pray about your concerns—alone, with your teen, and even with your family or community. Do this, and know that God is by you and your teen’s side, no matter what happens.
- Do you have online friends that you’ve never met in person (through social media, gaming, texting apps, etc)? Are any of them older?
- Have you ever encountered someone suspicious online? If so, what happened?
- What do you do to keep yourself safe online? How can we work together to make sure you’re as safe as possible?
- Do your peers practice safe online use? If so, how?
- Would you feel comfortable coming to me with suspicious activity or any situation you feel unsure about? Why or why not?
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- Mental Health Check In