My first in-depth experience with the internet began at 13 years old. For years I would watch my friends play online games and I was annoyed with my parents for not allowing it until I was mature enough.
But finally, they said yes to a free game online and sat me down to lay some ground rules:
- Don’t give out: your name, address, phone number, or pictures
- No talking to strangers, especially not boys/men (aka the “stranger danger” talk)
I know there were other rules, but these are the ones I still remember today.
When I was gaming, I made sure to never give out my personal information because I didn’t want our family dealing with a predator or hacker. But the “no talking to strangers” rule was hard to follow, and so like many teens, I decided to ignore it.
My excuse for not following the rule was that I needed to communicate with others to play these games right. It also didn’t help that I enjoyed getting to know people from diverse backgrounds and this led me to feel that my parents didn’t understand.
And after countless nights of laughs and interesting internet discoveries some of my chats turned from innocent to harmful fast. I even had strangers consistently send inappropriate messages and pictures.
Though I had quite a few negative experiences, I was one of the fortunate ones because I had a safe space at home to get through it all. Overall, I had a positive gaming experience, but the negative ones still stay with me today.
These experiences made me realize that “stranger danger” isn’t the best way to teach children online safety. While I should not have been talking to random people, my decision gave me insight into the problems we have today with teens and their online activities. And my unique problem-solving approaches have led me to be the award-winning Online Safety Educator that I am today.
We often use phrases like “stranger danger,” but the people children are interacting with online usually aren’t strangers to them. Most likely they’ve spoken to each other for weeks or even years. Sometimes the strangers are honest people and other times they are far from that.
When I started working in Cybersecurity Awareness and Threat Intelligence, it allowed me to see the dangers of the online space with more clarity. I would often meet parents while conducting online safety workshops and their stories and worries reminded me of my own experiences as a child online.
This led me to conclude that our well-meaning “stranger danger” talks aren’t as effective as we would like to think.
Here are five reasons why we need to change our conversation on this topic:
- As mentioned above, kids often speak with and get close to people who they regard as friends or something along those lines. Therefore, the malicious strangers we are warning them about can easily sneak their way in.
- Most if not all the features of social media and gaming applications are created with connections in mind. This means that kids are unknowingly interacting with strangers all the time and this makes them less aware of any potential dangers.
- Predators will create fake accounts to impersonate family members, teachers, friends, or any other trusted person to get better access to children.
- Predators will take over legitimate online accounts of trusted individuals to gain a child’s trust.
- The online space isn’t just dangerous…it’s also a source of joy. So rather than approaching online safety from a fear perspective, we need to approach it from a protecting peace and happiness perspective. This in turn changes the way we educate teens and the way they implement safety in their lives.
Now the question is…how do we effectively protect children from ill-meaning strangers?
My experience as a gamer and as a cybersecurity professional has led me to develop what I call the Holistic Online Safety Method. Holistic online safety means giving children the freedom they WANT and the safety they NEED.
I believe holistic online safety is the only real way to move forward in an ever-changing world. In teaching thousands of people digital security and safety, I found that harmony and connections are the real foundations of online safety. In this method, everyone can implement and understand online safety values that can last a lifetime.
Here are seven ways you can holistically protect children online from malicious strangers and other dangers:
- Connections over controls. Parental controls have a huge place in online safety, but make sure your foundation is connecting with your kids and understanding their world to better create effective online safety guidelines.
- Cultivate trust. First, trust yourself and your ability to protect your children no matter your knowledge level. Children need a guide, not a tech expert. Just because they know more about tech doesn’t mean they know online safety.
- Maintain integrity. If you develop a rule, stick by it. If it changes let them know why.
- Uphold privacy. Double-check that you aren’t sharing too much about your kids online and remind your kids to do the same.
- Provide security. Enable security and parental controls on all apps as applicable.
- Build safety. Prioritize emotional safety in your kids so that they can come to you when they feel uncomfortable. Emotional safety is the gateway to all the other versions of safety…especially online safety for kids.
- It’s ok to wait. Social media and online gaming are best for teens who are mature and can understand the complexity of these platforms.
Above all, know that you don’t have to implement these steps alone nor do you need to be tech-savvy. Remember, it takes a village to raise your children and your best is all that’s required!
Fareedah Shaheed is the CEO and Founder of Sekuva, where she helps parents and caretakers protect their kids online. She has taught thousands of people online security & safety, has hosted lunch and learns, and has delivered keynotes on the subject. She is a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree and is currently serving on the Forbes board for the Under 30 community. She has been named Cybersecurity Personality of the Year 2020. And her work has been featured in Cisco, NASA, FOX 25, FOX 46, FOX Carolina, The Grio, Yahoo!, AfroTech, The Every Mom, StartPage, TripWire, Infosecurity Magazine, Thales Cloud Security, and many more.
The Safe Kids Movement (SKM) is the all-in-one resource center empowering parents with online security awareness to keep their kids safe in a digital world while building closer parent-child relationships.