The internet and social media are here and it’s here to stay. There is no escaping it. For many, it has become a way of life.

If you are in your 40’s you certainly didn’t grow up in the era of the vast technology that is available today. Our lives were not splashed in Technicolor in a place called Cyberspace for strangers to see. When we went to visit family and friends we had real-life conversations, looked at each other, and bonded. Nowadays when you look around at people in restaurants, phones are on the tables or in people’s hands. If someone is talking, they are talking to a person who is busy on their phones.

Many of today’s children are addicted to social media and we as parents do not know how to deal with it. As parents, we need to negotiate this relationship. Social Media should not become a source conflict and tension in the home. If we ban it, children find a way to hide it from us. We fight with our children about their use of social media and it turns into constant power battles and endless conflict.

When it comes to younger children who are given cell phones and tablets to play with to keep them quiet, the effects on their brains, shown in research studies is the same as the effects of cocaine. This is in part, the reason small children cry and throw tantrums to get the device. We as parents give our children the devices and should ensure that screen time is limited and boundaries are set and enforced.

When it comes to technology and teens normally the dangerous things that come to mind are sexting, online predators, and cyberbullying. All are incredibly damaging, more common than people think, and should be talked about. However, there are subtle, everyday dangers of social media that are either unknown, being ignored, or minimized.

Road are dangerous, but we don’t stop our children from travelling on them. We teach them how to use the road. If they are passengers in a car we tell them to put on their seat belt and we also inform them of why this must be done. If our children walk to school we teach them road safety  With the internet and social media, the same applies. We need to teach our children about internet safety and why we are saying so.

Children with unsupervised access to the Internet and without advice and guidance on “Internet Safety” are most at risk. Young children set up Facebook accounts, have Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, snap chat, WeChat, Twitter, Instagram, Skype, Viber and the list goes on. Most sites have age restrictions and yet we as parents allow our children to have these accounts.

One site of many that is particularly dangerous is “Omegle – Talk to strangers”. On this site, you are talking to strangers. If you are unsure or have no idea just how quickly your child can come into contact with a perverted adult or paedophile I would like to encourage you (the parent) as a matter of research and interest to access this site for yourself. Brush up on your internet language or print a list of the abbreviations used so you know what is being asked of you.

These lists contain abbreviations and meanings, few examples below.

F2F – face to face

ASLP – age, sex, location, picture

F2P – free to play

GNOC – get naked on cam (webcam)

HSWM – have sex with me

P911 – Parent Alert

PAL – Parents are listening

PAW – Parents are watching

PIR – Parent in Room

POS – Parent over Shoulder

KPC – Keeping Parents Clueless

Once connected in a chat, users are only identified as “You” and “Stranger.” However, the stranger can then ask for personal information or share explicit messages. Even Omegle notes that “predators have been known to use Omegle.” Certainly, this site is the kind of place where online predators are likely to exist. There is a pretense of anonymity and a lack of enforced age restrictions. Unrestricted, kids using Omegle are likely to be exposed to inappropriate content. They could also easily open themselves to potentially harmful situations.

In the past paedophiles had to actively go out and find children. They would go to parks and schools or any place that was frequented by children. Today with the advancements of technology such as the internet and social media, children are just a click away.

There are four main ways that those who want to abuse children use to contact and communicate with your child:

  • Web sites
  • E-mail
  • Chat room
  • Instant messaging (IM) / Direct messaging (DM) / Private messaging (PM)

There are thousands of pornographic web sites which contain pornographic pictures, including child pornography or child abuse images. Your child must be protected from being exposed to such pictures because of the impact such pictures might have on the normal development of your child.

There are two main risks to children using the Internet: Internet contact and Internet content.

Internet Contact

Your child cannot see the person at the other end of the computer. There is no way for children to know who they are talking to. The paedophile will start an innocent conversation with your child. They are very good at posing as young children and are up to date with what children like, are interested in and the latest trends. At first, the questions will be innocent and seemingly harmless.

What is happening is they are gathering information about your child. Where they go to school, sports interests, family composition e.g. divorced parents, parent’s line of work to assess threats e.g. maybe dad is a policeman, area the child lives in and so forth. Seemingly innocent pictures are swapped. Remember, children are curious. They will want to know who is this boy/ girl they are talking to. Who is this kind person who cares about and understands them so well? Better than their parents who are always shouting at and putting pressure on them.

Paedophile’s will also ask if your child has other social media sites. With this basic information and information gathered from other social media sites, the paedophile can find your child.

The Internet, especially when it is accessed from the comfort of a home, can give a child a false sense of security. A child is, therefore, more likely to be seduced into giving out personal information and even contact details to strangers, without realising they are exposing themselves to risks.

Internet Content

Developers of pornography make use of every available opportunity to spread their filth as widely as possible. Even if your child is not “surfing” the Internet for pornography, a simple misplaced letter in a word could open a pornographic web site. Pornography comes looking for Internet users! Pornography is not the only content that your child might be exposed to. Violence, amongst other topics, is also harmful to children and there are many web sites devoted to such materials.

Child pornography is a highly secretive and underground activity and is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Paedophiles and child abusers use child pornography-

  • for sexual stimulation and gratification, which usually leads to masturbation and, in many cases, the actual sexual abuse of children.
  • to groom and seduce children by lowering their inhibitions into accepting sex with adults as “normal, acceptable and pleasurable” acts and that “everybody is doing it”
  • instruct children on how to perform specific sexual acts
  • for trading and exchanging of collections of child pornography, thereby stimulating demand for more child pornography
  • to blackmail and threaten children into silence about what is being done to them

How to protect your child from becoming a victim of internet predators

As with everything in life, including the using of a road, nothing can prevent life from happening but we as parents need to do all that we can to make it safer.

The following may help:

Help your children to become “cyber smart”. Enable them to be able to recognise potential dangers and know how to avoid threatening situations. Talk to your children about online predators, and about the potential dangers of using certain social media apps, websites, messenger services and chat rooms. This means you need to be “cyber smart” yourself.

Encourage your children to come and talk to you should they find, or come across messages or content that makes them feel uncomfortable and it’s something that you have warned or spoken to them about, especially if it is of a sexual nature. Your relationship with your child should be open and if your child has been involved in any form of online sexual exploitation, even if “willingly”, make sure they understand that it is not their fault.

Make sure your child’s computer is in a room used by the family and not in the child’s bedroom. Internet predators would not be so keen to attempt to groom your child if they know that the computer screen is visible to every person in the household. The whereabouts of the child and the device in relation to adults is very important for the paedophile to know.

If your child has a cell phone with data or the home has a Wi-Fi connection, I encourage you to go into the bedroom, sit next to your child and take an interest in what they are doing on their phones besides listening to music. Remember the internet is full of information and children are inquisitive. They enjoy the attention and don’t always have the foresight to see the danger until they are caught up in it.

Install filtering software on computers and cell phones used by your children. Filtering and blocking software can be programmed to block access to websites that contain materials to which children should not be exposed. This is not a 100% fail-safe but compliments your measures. There are many free options available online.

And, most importantly, tell your children to:

  • never arrange or agree to any face-to-face meeting with any person they met online
  • not to post to the Internet, or send to people they do not personally know, any pictures of themselves
  • don’t give out any personal information about themselves, even if the information seems unimportant and innocent, to any person on-line e.g. where they live, go to school and what they look like and so on.
  • never download pictures from an unknown source since there could be sexually explicit images
  • never respond to messages on-line that are sexually suggestive, obscene, aggressive or harassing
  • not to believe things that may be said by people on-line, especially about themselves because people on-line are not always who they pretend to be. Paedophiles are particularly skilled at pretending to be of the same age as your child
  • do not enter a private chat room

Victims usually report being told by the perpetrator not to tell anyone, that it is their little secret or that they, the perpetrator well get into trouble and it will be the child’s fault etc. They are very skilled at manipulating the child to thinking that everything that goes wrong will be their fault. Guilt and self-blame are common.

Not all paedophiles are child sex offenders, and conversely not all child sex offenders are paedophiles. Some people who sexually abuse children are not preferentially attracted to children at all.

Social media is so addictive, enticing and entertaining. If we want our children to leave social media we must create these things in our relationships with our children. If we keep on and on at our children and don’t have a healthy relationship with them, they would rather go and hide on social media.

Social media is not a threat, its how its used. We as parents should not be codependent on social media. We don’t need to live in a world that defines our self-worth with how many “likes” we get and how many people are following us. We cannot use social media to elevate our sense of self-worth. If we do then our children will be modelling the same behaviour.

If your child or teen has found themselves in a situation where they have been exposed to explicit content, been or being cyber-bullied, been in contact with a sexual predator who had made them send pictures of themselves or others naked or any other concerns with your child and social media please contact us at Vita Nova Counselling in Pretoria or Pietermaritzburg to set up an appointment (book your session online now) to help you and your child negotiate and work through these challenges. Fear can lead to suicide. View the Vita Nova Counselling services here