“Stranger Danger” maybe was something you were taught as a kid, perhaps it’s something you teach your kids – don’t talk to strangers, if a stranger is too friendly with you, get away and tell an adult. While those are good pieces of advice – it’s a little harder in today’s world to identify strangers.
Kim Smith, Healthy Relationships Manager at Her Health Women’s Center, has been speaking to area school kids about understanding the danger of strangers online. Hired in August 2021, Kim has already reached more than 1,500 youth through school presentations. Her goal is to help educate them about the dangers of online strangers.
“Kids often don’t understand that just because someone knows something about you doesn’t mean they are your friend,” Smith said. “They don’t understand, and sometimes adults don’t understand, how easy it is for a predator to get information about a child they can use to build trust.” Once that trust is established, the predator begins to ask them to do things they don’t want to do, sometimes within a matter of days.
Smith explained her goal is not to take devices or access away from kids but to help them be safe online. Through presentations to schools, organizations, and churches, the goal is to equip kids and adults with knowledge and resources for safety.
“Many kids say their parents don’t even know what they are doing online. They either don’t understand it, don’t have the time to deal with it, or think it’s all going to be fine. We, at Her Health, just think there’s a better way. Equipping kids to be smart about it and giving parents tools and resources will help combat some of the things happening online that are hurting our kids,” Smith noted.
These presentations often include discussion of our common vulnerabilities as humans. “We want to be included, we want to be accepted, we want to be loved,” Smith said. “That’s true of all of us, kids and adults. But we also have to protect ourselves because there are people out there who will take advantage of those vulnerabilities and hurt us.”
Smith explained at any given time there are more than a million online predators looking for individuals to manipulate. They can be quite sophisticated and live anywhere from next door to around the world. “They have programs they use to look for keywords being posted,” said Smith. “We tested this at Shared Hope, where I was a full-time volunteer, and within minutes of posting a message such as ‘I’m bored, my life sucks, or I’m lonely’ there would be contact from a predator.”
Interacting with a kid at a time they feel vulnerable is the grooming process. They share information they learn about the kid online and the kid thinks they are a friend. Before long there is pressure to do things they wouldn’t normally do or don’t want others to know about themselves. And when that happens, the predator then leverages those actions to pressure the kid for money or more explicit content to keep it private.
“One of the really important things we discuss is making sure they tell a trusted adult if someone is making them uncomfortable online or in-person,” Smith said. “Even if you made a bad choice and shared a photo, tell an adult so we can help you. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s important to ask for help.”
And for parents, the most important thing is to engage with your kids. Ask them about the games they are playing, the apps they have on their devices. Check their privacy settings – and your own! “As an adult, we should be getting rid of connections with people we don’t actually know,” Smith advised. “It helps keep those around us safe from information gathering by bad actors.”
Smith said, it’s ok that parents don’t know as much as their kids do about apps or games. It actually provides an opportunity to begin conversation. “Ask them to show you how they created that avatar, do a family Tik-Tok challenge so you understand how it works. These are great ways to open the conversation so you can learn what your kids are doing and then have conversations about safety and boundaries.”
For parents wanting to learn more about how to protect their kids and have these important conversations, Smith provided a list of resources. “I’m available to come talk to groups. I especially like it when we can have kids and parents in the same room because then kids see parents asking questions and wanting to learn,” Smith said. To schedule a presentation, contact Her Health Women’s Center at 712-224-2000.
“Seduced” by Opal Singleton
“Hooked on Games” by Andrew Doan
Documentary on Youtube “Childhood 2.0”