It seemed like everybody on the block knew each other and trusted each other and then Clifford Olson happened in 1980/81. He shook our world to the core and parents suddenly overnight changed the open boundaries that were once given and suddenly our outdoor world became a little more confined. The trust in the community seemed to have dissapated overnight.
10 years later the abduction of Michael Dunahee happened and parents became terrified to let kids out of their sight and that seemed to have forever changed the freedom that parents were willing to let their children have. Gone were the days of randomly heading out the door and promising to be back by certain times or waiting to hear your mother holler your name and that it was time to come home. Once that happened children began to be limited to the confines of their yards and their bedrooms, it was also around this time that video games began to take off and become main stream in homes. Stranger Danger became a common phrase in schools and in homes. Don't trust strangers became the new expectations of children.
Video games seem to have almost answered parents questions, how to keep children busy and safe at the same time? Shortly thereafter the internet began to shape our new world and parents needed to start worrying about online predators. Children were making friends with random strangers, ones that they had never met, seen and had no idea who or what they were. The kids were "befriending" strangers, when did this become OK? Why was it OK for them to befriend online strangers but don't you dare talk to random people on the street. Children were befriending adults pretending to be kids, boys and girls chatting with men pretending to be girls.
Anonymity became the new identity. We became a community of strangers where it has become acceptable to chat with people that we have not met, who were separated by at least 2 degrees of separation. We were friending friends of friends without knowing whether or not our friends actually knew them or had befriended a random stranger. Suddenly strangers were being given information about smaller communities and tremendous amounts of personal detail. We still seem to be teaching not to trust thy neighbour but are failing in doing so online. It almost seems as though by protecting our children from outdoor predators we have opened a Pandora's Box for online predators.
When I am talking with parents at my school they talk about meeting their child's friends' parents before they are allowed to go over and play. Parents who register at a new school after their children have already done a few grades at a previous school sometimes discuss how hard it is to get to know the parents of the other kids in the classes because many tight knit groups are formed amongst the parents in kindergarten and they are reluctant to allow their children to go and play with the new kid because they don't know the parents. Why is so much care put into this world but not the virtual world? Is the problem become too complex? too convoluted?
There was a simple strategy in place when it came to protecting kids from outside predators, which was don't talk to strangers. While Stanger Danger had its detractors at least there was a firm strategy in place. Why is it that we are not able to come up with one for online predators? There is no simple strategy that works in today's world. Parents can be screenless at home and not have a computer, but then there child would probably just go to a friend's house and use it there. There are other families that may turn off the wireless router at night, but the problem is that sometimes neighbours have unlocked WiFi or the child has their access information and have unlimited access to WiFi. Some may think that by giving them only an iPod vs iPhone that they may be limiting their access to the web as well but there are so many establishments that now offer free WiFi that doesn't work anymore and many of the chat apps now can be used like phones, sharing info and so on.
The funny thing is the solution at the heart of the matter is quite simple. We need to find ways to help our children establish their own real friendships again versus virtual ones, find common activities that take them away from the computer, establish strong lines of communication between parent and child that is built on trust and openness. Parents also need to be parents and not friends. There must be ground rules in place such as where they can access the technology, when they can do it, being screenless at night, sharing with their parent what they have posted and loss of the devices when they have been misused. Simple basic groundrules will go a long way to limiting the possibility of stranger danger on the internet.
If we try and go bigger there are too many other questions that would need to be addressed such as:
How would we define online predators in terms of stranger danger?
- Sexual predators looking to lure children away from their homes?
- Predators looking to have children expose themselves for their own gratification or for blackmailing?
- Anonymous trolls who post racist, cruel comments and target children's social/emotional well being
- Anonymous trolls who find compromising pictures/information and decide to share it for the purpose of humiliation.
- People who use the internet to make comments and jokes that they would never dare to in person?
- socially detached individuals who cannot see the harm they are causing or simply who don't care?
What are the reasons for the adults failing to address this?
- Are parents afraid of tackling technology?
- Are parents unaware of what their children are doing with the technology?
- Are we failing to teach students the skills they need to be safer at school?
- Are children hiding their virtual friends in the same way we hid friendships from parents in the past that we knew they could not approve?
- Is there a sense that nothing will happen?
- Is technology changing so quickly that we always seem to be a step behind the kids?
- Have we buried our heads so deep in the sand that we are scared to take it out and acknowledge the world that is out there?
Why are children failing to report this?
- they don't know the trouble they are in until it is too late?
- the information age is too fast to be able to contain the problem
- the social networks are too large and too vast?
- they feel as though nothing can be done about it?
- the definition of what a friend is has been transformed or has become blurred?
- the number of strangers who follow you is now seen as a status symbol?