The reality of the world all children are growing up in is that they are going to meet people online. Don’t get this wrong; teens don’t belong on online dating sites. As they enter the world of dating, it should be with people they know in a real-world context, not a cyber-world context. They—and their parents—should know more about their dates than what you can find out from the Internet.
But online dating sites aren’t the only place where people—and youth—meet online. They meet on all sorts of social media sites and platforms. Like all of us, children included, start communicating more and more on social media, we run into strangers. Most of those strangers aren’t dangerous. Some of those strangers become friends.
I’ve met some wonderful people on social media, people who have taught me and supported me and made me laugh, people who have helped me be a better artist, writer, daughter, and person. But the thing is that children will be grown-ups one day, and if they don’t have the skills they need to navigate the world of online relationships (yet), they will run into trouble. There are many instances where children or as we call them now; ‘pre-teens’ have been known to be in ‘relationships’ whereas the other person in that relationship hasn’t even existed — meaning, they’re dating this alter personality that a certain individual has made up.
But even before they are grownups, social media offers youth the opportunity to connect with, and learn from, people all over the world. These connections can make the world smaller, help to build bridges and tolerance, and prepare the youth for the connected life of the future. Also, for youth who suffer from chronic disease, disabilities or who feel marginalized for other reasons, the Internet offers so many opportunities to learn and find support from people facing the same challenges. For so many people including teenagers, the Internet can be a real lifeline.
So…rather than just saying, “Don’t do that!” I think parents need to do some real talking—and teaching.
Safety has to be first and foremost. Youth are naturally trusting, especially when someone is nice to them—and we all know how nice predators can act online. Parents need to help their teens understand that all is not necessarily as it seems; they need to be extremely careful with what they share online. They shouldn’t tell strangers where they live or go to school, for example. Telling secrets or saying bad things about people can work out badly too if it turns out the new online friend can’t be trusted.
And they must never, ever go to an in-person meeting with someone they met online unless an adult is present.
But really, very little about navigating online relationships are black and white. Each person and circumstance is a bit different. There are ways to gather data about strangers that can help you figure out if they can be trusted—but none of those ways are foolproof. There are also ways to have relationships online without putting yourself at risk—but those ways will vary depending on the situation. That’s why parents need to have ongoing conversations with their teens about what they are doing and who they are meeting online.
There’s no way a teen is going to have those conversations if all they hear from you is doom and gloom. They will figure you don’t understand. They will make friends online, and they won’t tell you about it.