One morning, my daughter asked a question I wasn’t prepared for. It was highly sexualized. This was not a “where do babies come from” question. I didn’t know this “thing” existed until I was a nineteen-year-old college student. She was NINE!
Another fourth-grader had watched a sexually graphic video at home and described it in detail to kids the next day. No screens were present, but my child had been exposed to pornography.
That was the moment I realized parenting had changed.
I thought we had been responsible parents by not giving her a phone. We tried to protect her, but it didn’t keep her safe from online dangers. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Why do kids have to grow up so fast today? That was seven years ago, and I’ve been on a mission to keep kids safe ever since.
When I started this journey, I needed to identify the new problem we face. We know that technology is impacting our kids, but what does that mean? There are things like social media, apps, screen addiction, and sharing nudes; we’re the first generation of parents to tackle these new challenges. There are also issues that have been around for years, but technology has changed them … like pornography, bullying and strangers. For example, we’ve always had to be concerned about stranger danger. Our kids being kidnapped is still a concern, but technology has complicated it. Now, your eleven-year- old can be next to you on the family sofa chatting with another “kid” online. But behind the profile picture of a young boy could be a sex-trafficking pimp.
Strangers can reach our children in our homes, at school, at a friend’s house-anywhere. Traffickers often act as if they’re the same age as your child. To establish a personal connection, they identify with a child’s feelings and experiences, like messaging, “I hate my parents!” To groom a child, a sex trafficker often tries to get the child to do or say something bad. When the child does, the sex trafficker might say, “If you don’t send me a nude, I’ll send these messages to your mom on Facebook.” A child who is blackmailed into sending a nude can be blackmailed into doing just about anything. Imagine being told, “Go to this app after bedtime, take off your clothes, and live stream.” The pimp can then collect money. Did you know your child can be trafficked from their bedroom?
We’re in new territory. And all kids are at risk.
As I sought to find a solution to this overwhelming problem, I looked everywhere. I knew bubble wrapping (not allowing technology) failed because my child was still exposed to pornography. Once she earned a phone, I realized monitoring products had loopholes.
For example, there are some operating systems and apps that prevent third- party monitoring. Even if I could find the perfect app, kids use their friend’s phone when they want to hide something!
I’m not saying we shouldn’t use all of the tools that are available to us. Subscribe to the phone-monitoring apps. Set restrictions and parental controls. Do random phone checks. Implement a phone contract with clear guidelines. Restrict phones in bedrooms and bathrooms. Be engaged in your child’s online world.
But the solution and the first line of defense is open communication. It’s about having healthy, on-the-go conversations about everyday issues and questions our kids struggle with.
I discovered the solution in Deuteronomy 6:6-7: talk when we’re at home, on the road, getting up and going to bed. “On the go” jumped off the page because I had noticed my kids asked awkward questions in the car because they didn’t have to look at me directly!
I know this “talk to your kids” solution sounds simple. But it’s actually about creating a whole new culture of conversation in our homes. We must build a place of trust. Keeping kids safe online is more about relationships than rules.
I’ve seen that when guidelines, filters, and restrictions didn’t work, open communication did. My daughter has said, “This person is messaging and asking where I go to school.” My son has jumped in the car and yelled, “I heard this word on the playground. What does it mean?”
If kids tell us what they see and hear, we get to be their source of information. Technology is exposing our kids to new dangers, but building a powerful culture of open communication keeps our kids safe in a digital world.
BY MANDY MAJORS
For information on talking to kids about online strangers, check out the “Grooming” and “Online Manipulation” shows on the nextTalk podcast. www.nextTalk.org
In Mandy’s upcoming book, she gives ten practical ideas for building a culture of conversation.
Originally published in San Antonio Woman Magazine July/August 2020 Issue: https://sawoman.com/2020/07/keeping-kids-safe-in-a-digital-world-a-solution-that-works/