How to Teach Your Tween Internet Safety Without Scaring Them to Death

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My youngest son is in middle school. Last week he came home from school wide-eyed and animated about an Internet Safety assembly he had that day at school. Some days when he comes home from school he doesn’t have a whole lot to say about what went on. So when he started chattering away about a video, and abduction, and some 13 yr old girl, I knew it was time to sit down and pay attention.

As part of a program created to make kids aware of child predators, my son’s school showed an interview with a young woman, now 20 years old, who had, when she was 13, met on-line someone who she thought was another 13 yr old girl and eventually snuck out of her family’s home to meet her. Sadly, the “girl” from the internet turned out to be a child predator who abducted her, raped her, abused her, and kept her in a cage in his basement for 4 days until her parents and the police rescued her.

Needless to say, this poor girl’s horrific tale made a lasting impact on my son. We talked about what he had learned from the presentation and what he learned from the presenters and came up with the following.

Never put your real birthdate on a social networking site. Don’t tell people how old you are.

Never post your street address or your hometown.

Never post your school’s name or your school district.

Make sure that you know all of your online friends. Don’t accept invites from friends you’ve never met and use to improve your privacy.

Never agree to meet anyone alone in a chatroom or in person.

His Facebook page was clear of all these safety missteps, and I think we were both relieved to see that he had remembered to keep himself safe. He knows too, that I have a Facebook account specifically so that I can keep an eye on him and his older brothers and ask them about anything that I think is questionable or inappropriate on their pages or alert them to anything I think they should steer clear of.

Everything seemed fine until bedtime that night when the story from the school assembly came back to haunt us. I say us because it took my son, my husband, and me in a team effort to get him through the night. He was completely freaked out that some strange man was going to steal him from his bed, abuse him, and leave him shattered and haunted like the 20-year-old in the story. He finally ended up sleeping on our bedroom floor, something he had not done for years.

The following night was better, but I still needed to double-check his windows to make sure they were locked, assure him that: (luckily) we live in a very safe town, that if he so much as squeaked during the night his older brother (who has a black belt in karate) would race in to beat up anyone who was trying to hurt him, and that only over my dead body was anyone stealing one of my kids. This helped, even producing a small smile, and he was able to sleep in his own room with only a minimum of tossing and turning that night.

In the end, we talked a lot about the internet and staying safe, and about child predators and what makes people do awful things to kids. Fortunately, the odds are on his side that nothing this awful will ever happen to him. I assured him that there are friendly, nice people on the internet. I even know people who have met online and married. You just need to be certain of who you are talking to before you tell them anything private about yourself. If he ever makes a good friend over the internet, the video girl’s experience doesn’t mean he can never meet them. It just means he can never meet them alone. His father and I would be happy to take him to meet someone in a local restaurant or mall. No one should meet a stranger alone in an isolated place like a park, not even an adult.

I’m glad that my son told me about the assembly. It gave us an opportunity for a discussion about how his life is changing as he is growing up and how the world, in general, is becoming more and more tricky to navigate. Life is so much more immediate than when I was growing up.

I’m not one hundred percent sure that the school made it clear how scary this video could be for middle school-aged kids when they gave us the option to pull our kids out of it. And I’m also not sure that they realize how much of an impact it could have on the more impressionable souls in the school. The danger is certainly real and their concern is admirable, but was the scare tactics necessary? I wish they had tried another approach first. You can keep kids safe without scaring them half to death. Talk to them, listen to them and show them you care and they’ll trust you instead of some mysterious stranger. That’s my plan for my kids, and I’m sticking with it. How about you?