Are All Online Strangers Created Equal?

Fact: 8% of 8 to 9 year-olds have communicated online with people they didn’t know.

Fact: 39% teenagers said they have made friends online that they wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Fact: 22% of 8 to 9 year-olds have shared information online that they know they shouldn’t have.

The Internet has given new meaning to ‘stranger danger’ as well as ‘friend’, with children playing games online with other gamers who may be adult sexual predators. Similarly, social media platforms provide opportunities for users to connect, communicate and share with anyone. Today, the challenge for parents is knowing how their children may come into contact with strangers online and how it is that they can help their children mitigate the potential risks associated with online communication.

What Are The Main Ways Children Use The Internet To Communicate?

Children are using the Internet today to connect with and support others. The Murdoch University study, in fact, highlights the point of view from a student who states that “talking to someone on Facebook when you are upset, compared to just sitting [in] your room not communicating at all, definitely makes a difference.”

The most popular platforms which 8 to 17-year-olds are using to communicate with their friends on a daily basis are YouTube (41%), WhatsApp (32%), Snapchat (29%), Instagram (27%) and Facebook/Facebook Messenger (26) according to the UK Safer Internet Centre Executive Summary.

These platforms belong to various categories of online communication such as ‘social networking sites’, ‘instant messaging’ and ‘online chat rooms’. The issues with these methods of communication, however, are in their ability to have access to a user’s personal information such as their name, age, location, photographs, contact details and email addresses. In light of  the report published by New England Journal of Public Policy, which found  that “contact with online predators happens mostly in chat rooms, on social media, or in the chat feature of a multiplayer game (RobloxMinecraftClash of ClansWorld of Warcraft, and so on)” this requires parents to be more vigilant and engaged in their children’s digital lives.

The Internet Has Redefined ‘Stranger’ And ‘Online Friend’

Friendships are relationships built on trust regardless of whether they are solely online or offline or both. You may be thinking, “But how can my child trust someone they have never met before?” Well, the notion that a child may actively trust a person who they do not fully know or have not met in person is understandably hard for parents to understand, but it’s only through understanding the reality of this that we can hope to be more proactive rather than reactive in guiding their children.

study conducted by Murdoch University found that for teenagers, online friendships are just as important to their wellbeing as a physical friend. Murdoch PhD student Bep Uink said, “[the study] shows that young people are using the internet in very sophisticated ways to meet their psychological needs.”

The notion that Internet friends can’t be real friends is misplaced according to the data gathered in The UK Safer Internet Centre’s 2018 survey of over 2000 young people. It demonstrates that “technology is embedded throughout their relationships and the majority of young people (in our survey) said that they would feel isolated if they couldn’t talk to friends via technology”.

John Green, award-winning author and educator says, “I dislike the phrase, ‘Internet friends,’ because it implies that people you know online aren’t really your friends, that somehow the friendship is less real or meaningful to you…The measure of a friendship is not its physicality but its significance. Good friendships, online or off, urge us toward empathy; they give us comfort and also pull us out of the prisons of ourselves.”

Even though it is evident the Internet has created new ways to establish friendships and meet new people, it still comes with risks such as online predators who groom children for sexual purposes. In the context of face-to-face reality, it’s fairly easy for young children to recognise whether or not someone is a stranger to them, but there are many ways in which this line can become blurred online. The ability to safely navigate this line is particularly difficult for young children, as they lack the capacity to properly evaluate risk. So as parents we need to understand how children use the Internet to communicate and how we can help them learn safe online practices so that they can feel protected and empowered online.

How Do Parents Mitigate The Risks Without Impeding Their Child’s Digital Development?

Because 68% of teenagers claim that social media provides them with support during difficult times and 83% say that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, blocking or banning the Internet to avoid online ‘stranger danger’ is not the best solution.

In fact, the best solution is education. Education of yourself as a parent and then your children and family. This is one of the best solutions to mitigating potential online threats as it enables rational actions to take place that are not governed by fear.

Kidsmart lists a set of SMART rules on their website to help children understand safe online practices. These rules are:

Safe: to keep safe online, you should avoid giving out personal information such as your email address, phone number, address, or passwords.

Meeting: if someone you’ve been talking to online asks to meet you in person, you should only do so with your parents’ or carer’s permission.

Accepting: try to avoid opening files or messages from people you don’t know or trust because it could contain a virus or dangerous material.

Reliable: people online sometimes lie about who they are, or share fake information online – so if you’re not sure if someone is telling you the truth, you should check the information with a trusted adult.

Tell: if someone makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, you should tell your parents, carer, or another trusted adult.

An additional resource for parents who want to be more knowledgeable and engaged in their child’s online activities is The Parents’ Survival Guide to Children, Technology and the Internet — a comprehensive, yet understanding book that consolidates information, research and advice from over 300 leading international resources, including some of the world’s best technologists, child psychologists and online safety experts.

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