If I was to say that I am a 17 year old member of an up-and-coming boy-band who will be possibly performing on ‘X Factor’ next month and that I have trendy blonde hair and like fashionable clothes and music, you would be forgiven for being ever so slightly suspicious that I may not be telling the truth. That is because, being adults, we have learned to question things that we are told by strangers and treat them with a healthy degree of suspicion and scepticism. It is a defence mechanism that we learn in order to reduce gullibility and maintain self-preservation of ourselves and our possessions.
Children and young people, however, have yet to gain these abilities are naturally very trusting and possess a naivety that, unless they have had personal experiences to the contrary, allows them to automatically think the best of people and implicitly believe no harm will come to them at the hands of grown-ups. This innocence is the reason why parents and other responsible adults are constantly warning youngsters of the dangers of talking to strangers.
In the pre-internet age, it used to be easy for adults to protect children against the potential of predatory strangers. As a young child, I lost count how many times my father or mother reiterated to me that I should “never talk to strangers”. As I progressed into my teenage years, however, the temptation to talk to ‘cool-looking’ people increased, coupled with my thought processes along the lines of “…what did my parents know anyway? They were old and definitely not-cool!”
These days, where kids have access to a variety of connected digital devices, it has become more difficult for parents and teachers to monitor young people and ensure that they are not talking to, or befriending inappropriate adults on the internet. This is especially problematic when you take into consideration some of the risky practices that young people engage in on social media such as ‘friend collecting’ - the practice of asking anyone and everyone to become ‘friends’ on ‘Facebook’ etc., in an effort to appear popular.
This can be addressed by educating them about how easy it is for a predatory adult to assume a false identity online in an attempt to become their ‘friend’ and therefore trustworthy. Unfortunately, however, even students who have received lessons on internet safety can still be drawn in by strangers who cleverly use ‘textspeak’ and the ‘slang’ language adopted by young people to ensnare trusting teenagers. Recently, the TES newspaper reported on a study of 785 secondary students that demonstrated that young people regularly make assumptions about the gender of online strangers based on the language they use and the subject matter discussed. The report highlighted that conversations about shopping or boyfriends are often enough for teens to quickly conclude that the online stranger they are conversing with is female, whereas discussions about football, where perhaps swear words are used, usually is enough to prove the online acquaintance is male.
Only last week, there was a heart-breaking report in the media that, only too well, highlights why young people should never go and meet a stranger that they have met online, in person. Breck Bednar was an intelligent, thoughtful and clever 14 year old, who went to meet a man that he had become friends with whilst playing online games. He tricked his parents into believing that he was going for a sleep-over at a friend’s house nearby but, instead, he travelled by train to the home of 19 year old Lewis Daynes. He was later found stabbed to death in Daynes’ flat.
It is worth pointing out that his vigilant mother was aware of and realised that Daynes was trying to control Breck via the internet and highlighted the obvious lies and deceptions to her son, however, he elected to overlook them and go and secretly meet Daynes with tragic consequences.
It is now no longer a reasonable excuse for parents to claim that due to their own technology short-comings, they haven’t got a clue what their child is up to online and who they are talking to. We need to constantly educate, not only children about internet safety, but those responsible for kids, whether they be parents, guardians or teachers about how to monitor young people’s online behaviour. What are the signs of secrecy to look out for, talk to them about internet safety and the reasons for responsible online activity. Parents should pay attention to who their children’s friends are and show interest in any new friends they may talk about and despite the inevitable protestations, be aware of who they are ‘friends’ with on social media and gaming chatrooms and, most importantly, ensure they have set up all of the correct privacy settings on their different online accounts.
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