As use of electronic devices becomes almost universal among adults in the U.S., it’s no surprise to learn that use of devices is skyrocketing among children as well. Experts estimate that at least 1 out of every 5 elementary students owns a cell phone, and that number more than quadruples among teens. However, the technology often advances faster than many parents can keep up with, and children tend to lack the developmental maturity to realize when certain social boundaries are being crossed. This combination can be disastrous when it comes to protecting children from sexual predators.
So how can we lessen the danger of sexual abuse or harm and empower children to make safe choices?
- Parents must first educate themselves before they can educate their children. As difficult as it may be to stay current on the dangers involved in cell phone or internet use, the information is freely available. Take the time to research how sexual predators operate, and where they are most likely to be found. In addition, consider how teens and children are most likely use their devices, and frequently discuss your own child’s use of technology. Stay informed about the apps your kids are using or may want to use and how those apps could be misused by sexual predators. Keep your dialogue open, honest, and ongoing. It may also be a good idea to make a rule that your children allow parents or guardians to have password access to their phones/social media accounts as a condition of keeping them.
- Consider activating parental controls or using a monitoring service. Many devices and service providers include parental controls that can be used to limit or restrict your child’s access to online services. Paid monitoring services are also available for parents who wish to have specific information about what sites their children may be visiting, how much time is spent online, etc. Additionally, you may wish to turn off location services, which helps to prevent children from being tracked with their phone’s onboard GPS. (If you do, make sure your child knows to leave it off at all times and to ensure that it is turned off on social media and game accounts.)
- Teach children to keep personal information private. A good rule of thumb is to allow kids and teens to keep in contact with only those whom they know and interact with “in real life”. That means assuring that children do not release their phone numbers to anyone but family and close friends, nor do they answer calls or texts from any numbers that they don’t recognize. Names, home addresses, photographs, or any other identifying information should also never be given out. Emphasize to your children that if anyone asks for such information, even in seemingly safe space like a chat or IM at a kid-friendly gaming site, then they must end the conversation immediately.
- Remind your children that whatever they text or publish online is permanent. Sexting, sharing of inappropriate images, cyberbullying, and use of pornography are all-too-common practices among today’s teens and tweens. What children often fail to realize, however, are the consequences of disseminating such intimate or incriminating information. Once this kind of information is sent out—to even a single person—it can never be taken back. You can simplify this concept even further by explaining to children that if they are not okay with their parents, grandparents, teachers, or future employers seeing what they would be texting or posting to social media, then it should not be sent in the first place.
While it is not always realistic to believe that parents can control every single aspect of their children’s cell phone use at all times, the above guidelines can help to establish firm ground rules that will enable parents and children to minimize the risk of harm from sexual predators. They also provide an opportunity for parents to teach their children that knowledge is power. An empowered child is more likely to have the mental and emotional resources to make positive choices, and is therefore more likely to stay safe in an increasingly perilous world.