Kids over 10 have been flirting with each other since the beginning of time.
They know they are supposed to like each other; they’re curious and awkward, and those who are ahead of the curve guide the less experienced through one of life’s rites of passage – their first real crush. Some stumble along blindly, hoping to avoid making a fool of themselves, while the more confident ones do the teasing and giggling, initiate the first holding of hands and stealing of the first kiss.
These age-old rituals have taken place on playgrounds and in school hallways for generations, usually with the watchful eye of adults never far away. But today, it’s nearly impossible for parents to see with whom or how their child is entering this phase of life, because a lot of it is done on computers and cell phones.
Sending a flirty text is today’s equivalent of a boy pulling the braids of the cute girl that sits in front of him in math. Since these conversations can continue after school and throughout the night because of the immediacy of today’s technology, and the fact most parents don’t have access to their kid’s phone conversations, they can quickly escalate and become more suggestive.
Think about how you got to know someone you were interested in during your teen years, and the barriers that prevented you from saying exactly what you were thinking. There was the risk of completely embarrassing yourself because your interactions were exclusively – at least until you were ‘going out’ and talked on the home phone (but often in the kitchen) – face-to-face, and there was also the physical end of the school day. When you went your separate ways after the last bell, you generally had no contact with this person until you returned to the school halls the next day.
Today, neither of these issues remain, because of the prevalence of cell phones in kids’ hands and access to a social media landscape many of today’s parents don’t fully understand. Conversations can escalate from youthful fun to dangerous territory quickly, said OPP Const. Kevin Martin, the Community Services Officer for the South Bruce Detachment.
“This is how kids become brave enough to ask for naked pictures of each other – they just keep the conversation moving and it becomes more and more serious,” Const. Martin said.
You’re a lot less likely to be shy when you’re in the privacy of your own home. In fact, this perception of being risk-free is exactly the behaviour that is so dangerous for today’s kids, the officer said.
“Even if they trust the person they’re sending the picture to, it only takes that person sharing it with one other person for that private picture to live forever.”
And once a picture is out there, it’s never coming back. There is no such thing as ‘deleted from the Internet’ and no recall function for texts. This has led to numerous youth having these suggestive or nude pictures leaked and shared across the Internet, which can lead to bullying or being preyed upon, and fear, depression and even suicide for the victim. Every time someone sends a picture of themselves to a friend or stranger, they are opening themselves to this sort of cyberbullying. Yet it happens every day, right here in Grey/Bruce.
“It’s natural for kids to be curious about the other gender, or drugs, booze and cigarettes for that matter,” Const. Martin said. “But they don’t have the maturity to know what is appropriate, and that’s why sexting can be so dangerous.”
Though concerning, this back-and-forth, 21st Century version of flirting is usually a two-way street. Another more pressing danger is the friendships with strangers that can easily be struck up online by unsuspecting or overly trusting kids, who are the first generation to be raised with the technology that allows them to display their entire lives for the world to see.
Watch for online predators
An online predator’s calling card is one simple question posed in a forum or chat room – age/sex/location (ASL)? People today don’t hesitate to outline their entire life – what makes them happy and sad, their likes and dislikes – online. This paves the way for predators to easily get to know a teen, Const. Martin said.
“The Internet has become an electronic diary, for good or bad. Friends exchange thoughts, talk about what’s trending, their favourite music – their whole life.”
This makes teens easy picking for predators, who can choose a person at random and immediately know practically everything about them.
“It’s like a smorgasbord for these people – they can sample as much as they want until they find someone they can groom.”
A predator will live as a teenager online and open a dialogue with their target. They’ll ‘mirror’ the youth, liking and disliking the same things to easily establish a rapport.
“They’ll build trust by saying, ‘Oh yeah, my parents really drive me crazy too. Nobody gets us like we do,’” Const. Martin said.
“The power lies in keeping this secret relationship from their victim’s parents. Predators say, ‘We have a solid connection and I always listen to you and understand what you’re saying, so now you’re going to send me a picture or meet me in person.’”
Then, if the child refuses, the predator flips it around and says they’ll contact the child’s parents and tell them they’ve been having an online relationship, and they’ll be in trouble if they don’t do what they’re told. This is where it gets dangerous, Const. Martin said, as many youth don’t realize it’s a sick adult on the other end of the conversation, sometimes until it’s too late.
What can parents do?
It is nearly impossible to track what kids are doing on the Internet or their cell phones, Const. Martin said, though having the computer in a common room in your home is a start. The next step is to talk about proper use of these platforms from the very first time they use them. Set the ground rules, talk about what they’re doing online and on their phone, and establish a mutually agreed upon system for being walked through their profiles on occasion – all of them, even the apps and websites you’re not familiar with.
“The best way to protect them is to talk to them – to have an open dialogue. That way they know the difference between right and wrong. Be caring and be involved – show them you’re concerned about their online activity even if you don’t know much about the apps or social media platforms they’re using.”
Technology isn’t going anywhere and is advancing so quickly that no parent can be expected to be up-to-date on what kids are using to communicate today.
“Parents don’t need to be computer programmers to protect their kids online, but they do have to embrace technology. Too many just say, ‘I don’t know how to use computers,’ and turn a blind eye.
“A parent’s link to their child supersedes any safety setting on a computer or site blocker, so invest the time to learn about their life and talk about what is and isn’t acceptable.”
He said many parents also think their children are too young to have these conversations, but you’d be surprised just how much they know at a young age. His school sessions begin for students in Grade 6 because they’re old enough to understand the issues but are hopefully young enough to not have had any experience.
Parents should also take their own advice when using social media, Const. Martin said. He constantly sees people posting family photos from a resort down south or ‘Checking In’ while on holiday. Predators have ways of using this information and the GPS data on your phone to track your family, putting you all at risk. It also gives potential robbers an open invitation to your home, while you’re enjoying your vacation, he added.
“It’s wonderful to be proud of your family and post photos – just wait until you get home.”