Online safety in digital age: What parents need to know about sexual predators
With South African families being confined to their homes over the next few weeks as part of the National lockdown, a growing portion of the day is being spent online, whether it is for work - in the case of parents, or chatting to friends and actively engaging with social media platforms - in the case of children.
This however is also the opportune time for sexual predators to take advantage of the increased time that children spend on social media networks, as well as the higher volumes of content that they tend to post.
A discomforting fact about sexual predators is that they historically work and hang out in areas that provide easy access to children: teachers, youth leaders and the like are not uncommon profiles of sexual predators. In today’s world, this concept still holds true. It’s just that this time around, the likes of Instagram, Snapchat, gaming chat rooms, Tik Tok - and whatever tomorrow’s next social media craze will be - are the modern-day playground for tweens and teens,and are therefore also a preferred hangout for sexual predators.
Data from the Digital Law Company, which provides legal advice and guidance in the field of digital media, shows that there has been a dramatic increase in the cases where young boys or girls have been groomed into sending sexually suggestive or naked photos or videos by someone they have met on social media who appears to be another teenager but who is, in actual fact nothing but an adult (usually male) paedophile preying on multiple young victims.
In one example, an Instagram account claiming to be an official Miss Teen South Africa account lured hundreds of young girls with the promise of an international modelling contract and R500,000 up for grabs in prizes. As soon as young girls liked the account, they were asked to send a WhatsApp to the number of an international modelling scout for the “international model verification process”. All too soon the “verification process” was asking these young girls for photographs of themselves without any clothes on. This was not Miss Teen South Africa, or any kind of modelling contest - it was a sexual predator living in South Johannesburg.
Keeping tweens and teens safe on social media
Sexual predators in the digital age are slick and know exactly how to get attention from their victims. A profile will be set up to be something that a victim would be interested in. The predator will be sure to follow/ like accounts liked by the victim so that it appears that they have a number of mutual friends. The problem here is that for tweens and teens, the number of followers and likes on social media is seen as one huge popularity contest: the more followers, the better you are.
The countrywide lockdown will most likely see increased effort by these predators to take advantage of the increased time that youngsters will be spending online. Parents for their part can’t simply ban their children from social media altogether, and should rather focus on educating their children, and raising awareness of the dangers that are online. Here are a few pointers on what parents should consider:
Ensure your child has a private account.
Have conversations with your child about:
Stranger danger and not talking to people you don’t know in real life
being discerning about who you allow to follow you on Instagram - explain to your children that being popular on Instagram is like being rich in monopoly!
Blocking anyone who makes you feel even in the slightest bit uncomfortable online
Confronting you whenever they feel upset/unconfirmable or threatened
Limit time spent online - there are a number of apps and tools which allow you to limit the time your children spend online or on specific apps. Apple’s Screen Time app and Google Family Link are two free and relatively easy to use options.
Disable location services on the app so that your child’s location is not accessible to others
What parents have to understand is that the frontal lobe of the brain - the part responsible for impulse control and decision-making- is not fully developed until the age of 25. Tweens and teens do not understand the concept of permanent consequences of their actions, and very much live for instant gratification.
Without overseeing what our kids are doing on social media, checking in frequently and having multiple conversations around your children’s online activity, they are bound to make mistakes with long term serious psychological, reputational and even legal consequences.
* Vox, in partnership with the Digital Law Company.