Protect teens from sexual predators online by teaching them how–and how not–to interact with others on the Internet. From You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10–25, by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D.
Pornographic material is common on the Internet. Sexual predation, thankfully, is not. Despite all the media hype devoted to the subject, very few adolescents are victims of Internet-based predation by strangers, and sexual solicitations over the Internet are almost never followed up by contact through other means. It’s what adolescents do online that places them at risk, not whether they have a page on Facebook, MySpace, or some other social networking site. Rather than forbid adolescents from having personal pages, a better strategy is to teach them how and how not to interact with others over the Internet. A little common sense goes a long way. Here’s what you should tell your adolescent:
- Bantering online with friends about sex, dating, and crushes is fine; communicating with strangers about these topics is not. Online chats with strangers about fashion, feature films, and football are not a problem. But if your adolescent doesn’t know whom she is interacting with, sex and dating should not be a part of the conversation. Even if the other person seems to be an appropriate person to be chatting with, your adolescent has no way of verifying that this is the case. She’d be horrified to learn that her conversation about “disaster dates” really took place with a 43-year-old man posing as an eighth-grade girl.
- Do not respond to any sexual communication made over the Internet by someone whose identity you aren’t sure of. Just as you would hang up the phone if you answered and heard heavy breathing or sexual talk, immediately end any online chat with a stranger if the subject turns to sex. Even a seemingly innocuous response invites the conversation to continue. Don’t even respond that you aren’t interested or want to change the topic. Just end the chat.
- Don’t use the Internet to flaunt your sexuality. Posting provocative pictures or regaling the world with the details of your last sexual encounter is inviting trouble. A personal Web page can be personal enough without being intimate. It’s fine to show your friends a photo of yourself in your new bikini. It’s not fine to show the world.
- Don’t give out your phone number or address to anyone you don’t know, and don’t post this information on a public Web page. Someone who is pursuing you online can’t get any closer if he doesn’t know how to find you. If he somehow gets your phone number and tries to contact you, hang up and tell your parents about it.
- If you receive repeated unwanted sexual communications from the same person, tell an adult about it. Receiving unwanted pictures, messages, and invitations from a stranger can be upsetting. Your Internet service provider or local authorities may be able to intervene to track the person down and put an end to it (just as the phone company can help end harassing telephone calls), but you will probably need your parents’ help to initiate the process.
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