My son Sam (not his real name), aged ten, uses Xbox Live with his brother and their friends to connect after school and play Minecraft. My boys have quite a few friends their age they have met this way, and overhearing their voices and conversations it was always just fart jokes peppered among strategies to defeat the other team. Sam mentioned he’d met another new friend online who lived far away. I gave him my usual ‘Beware the Pedo’ spiel and didn’t think any more of it, until a few weeks later when he was desperate to log in to Skype early one morning as he was expecting his friend's call from Canada. When he told me his friend was sixteen, my attention spiked. What interest does a regular sixteen year old have in a ten year old?
As I came in from the adjoining room to question, I heard his voice through the computer. He sounded older than sixteen. I could see Sam in the video screen, but couldn't see his friend. I got in front of the camera view and confronted ‘Johnny Dollar XYZ’ (altered), and asked why on earth he was so intent on talking to my young son. Obviously shocked to see me, he pretended not to hear me properly. I called his bluff and asked him why we couldn't see him, in fact not even a profile photo, when he could see us. He told me "my camera is broken". "How effing convenient", I said. "Don't ever contact my son again. I'm calling the police". He ended the call.
I quizzed Sam further about their 'friendship'. Johnny had told him he didn't have any friends, and went on to pump him up about what a great and reliable friend he’d found in him, and how much he relied on talking to Sam to stay happy. Sam is the most empathetic kid you’d ever meet. He fell for it. Eventually he'd asked Sam to take his shirt off and flex his muscles, and to twerk in front of the camera on Skype. Sam declined and said "What are you, a pedo?" to which Johnny replied "Nah, only on Mondays". Sam thought he was just trying to be funny. Johnny wanted Sam to call him Dora and started referring to Sam as his 'bitch', and when challenged, again waived it off as a joke. He encouraged Sam to tell me he was sick so he could take the day off school and talk to him all day, and asked to see videos of him. Again, Sam declined on all fronts. He told me he had started feeling a bit concerned about it, but he pushed those feelings aside because there was still something about his new friend he liked, and “I didn’t tell him where I lived so I didn’t think he was going to steal me even if he did happen to turn out to be a bit of a weirdo. I also felt sorry for him.”
I can’t say for sure whether this guy was a legitimate threat, but he certainly appeared to be grooming my son. All of this happened under my roof - they'd had conversations while playing Xbox through headsets while I was in the same room. Who knows whether 'Johnny Dollar in Canada' really is across the other side of the world? Of course, it doesn't matter when they have a camera and direct access to kids in your own home.
It happened to my child, despite the fact that I have an open dialogue with my kids often about online spaces and the threat of predators. They know what paedophiles are and what they want. They know ‘stop, block and tell’ and know they’re not to speak with strangers online. Yet among the social networks and realm of kids’ video games, these malevolent manipulators worm their way in and before long your kids don’t believe they’re talking to strangers, but ‘good guys’ and ‘real friends’.
We may never know if or when our children might come into contact with a predator, but it’s simply not enough to just give them a stranger danger warning and stress the importance of withholding their personal details and whereabouts. We have to be far more specific and explicit in talking about grooming in order to help them recognise who they’re dealing with. Here are some things your kids should know:
They may say their camera is broken.
They may say you’re their only friend and they rely on you.
They may ask you to do things you think are a bit odd, then laugh and say ‘just joking’ if you say no.
They may ask you to talk to them on another platform.
They may ask what your parents are doing and other questions about when and whether or not they are out of the room.
They may delete their messages after your conversations.
They may ask where you live and what school you go to.
They may ask how your day was at school and show interest in your activities. They may sympathise with you if you didn’t have such a good day.
They may ask you not to tell anyone that you’re friends with them.
They may make you feel really good and tell you how awesome you are (you are!) and ask to see parts of your body.
They may share pictures and videos with you.
They may ask you to share with them pictures and videos of yourself and/or your friends.
They may give you funny or special ‘pet’ names.
They may tell you they trust you and ask if you trust them.
They may talk about secrets.
They may tell you that no-one understands them except you.
They may tell you no-one understands you except them.
They may sound like a child or teenager and use the language of a child or a teenager.
They may even tell you they’re older than you and you might be impressed that someone older is interested in you.
They may have a profile picture or none at all. (If they do have a photo, are there other pictures of the same person with other people, especially people you know?)
They may offer to send you a pre-paid mobile phone so they can contact you privately (and get your address!).
Of course some things in isolation don’t necessarily mean your child is under threat, but there’s no harm in having them check in with you if any of these do occur in their interactions. It’s important to never shame, blame or punish your child when they do come to you or they’ll be unlikely to turn to you again. Instead, empower them with praise for recognising the warning signs and speaking out. They’re never too young to build that armour, and we must help them do it! It’s a fact of life - they’re all on the net and it’s here to stay.
(Article by Catherine Manning, CEO, SEED Workshops - published 9/2/16 by Women's Agenda)