This is a post that makes zero sense to a spirituality page but all the sense to a person who teaches and works with young people. In my ‘full force’ days, I have a thriving school that has a youth program wing. I spend much of my travel time in family space, training children. I researched youth and did youth programming in my professional years of academia. All of this means I have done a lot of training and knowledge gathering around safe spaces for engagement for young people. Over the years, I have also been a safe space that many parents in my community have trusted to speak about family issues with. You hear a lot of stories when you are in the middle of so many communications, which really help you to see things.
From that space, as most of us who are youth teachers do, I have worked to educate myself on what the world that young people experience is like. What are their safety concerns? Where do they go to ‘talk’? What do they do if they feel unsafe? Most importantly, what can I do to create environments that are safe and engaging for them? In real space, but also digitally?
To the parent and guardian aged people who read this blog: If you are like me, you were in your teens (or older) before the internet rolled out. We did our typing in the middle of the family room, with everyone looking over our shoulder because the computer was the ‘new thing’. We did not have cell phones that had web browsers and the plethora of apps that are available today. In short, the playing field we lived in was different. I share what I do below because I know it is not really common knowledge and I firmly believe it should be. I woke up this am to a story of yet another bust and this article, that I have been thinking about for months, has finally come out. Take it with the love that it was written.
To the young people reading this blog: This article is more for you than anyone. Please be safe out there but also, not afraid. With a few steps, you can help make sure you are not leaving a digital or real-world track for a yucky to follow. Many adults are not great at this. Learning about this now (if you have not already) gets you ahead of the curve.
Bringing Internet Safety into Focus
As part of being a teacher and spaceholder, I probably look into and hear about these matters more than your average person. For that reason, I am bringing this conversation forward now. As paranoid and crazy as it might sound. There is a pronounced ring of internet activity that seeks to target children and youth. It is not ‘new’, and it does not seem to be going away. In fact, it seems to be fairly embedded and common. You could rightfully call it ‘everyday’. It happens in all continents and towns. It is not ‘far away’.
Many of my readers are American, so I will work with examples from here to root the conversation. One of the things that is happening here that we can verify is that there are a lot of older teens and adults who are using the internet to lure young people from their homes and or who are using the internet to abuse and manipulate youth while they are in their homes. What are they contacting them for? The potential of sexual acts, explicit photos, abusive conversations, and meet ups. Terrible, right? It gets worse. These types of interactions pave the way at times, for kidnapping and trafficking. How do I know this? Because I am keeping a list of the recent news of their busts and tracking the activity. I have been studying this for years. All the arrest activities are heartening HOWEVER, they also show the problem clearly exists. A big problem, that for some reason is not garnering the attention that it deserves.
Thus, this article.
The Basic Questions
Is this type of exploitation and communication between adults and people they know are underage, rare? No. Even I know more than one child who has been targeted this way and their parents are not negligent. This is part of why I felt empowered to say this, today. This is not a message for bad parents, or parents who do not take care of their children. This is like a public service announcement.
Are they all ‘old men’ doing this? No. Young men and women are frequently involved. Sometimes the people doing the contacting are affiliated with rings. Sometimes they are individual perverts. We have people as young as 22 years old going on the internet looking for 8 year olds for explicit engagement, which happened in my state just a few weeks back.
Does it only happen on the internet? No. Sports games, school, and the mall are places that people seek out children. Instagram, snapchat, tiktok. These are hunting grounds as much as they are places to socialize. What happen in digital world can lead to a social world stalking or meet up. A quote from a news article read just this morning,
“Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon, in announcing the arrests of 11 men on Monday, explained that law enforcement officers pretended to underage teenagers as the suspects messaged them through social media apps. Those apps included the popular mobile messaging app Kik, as well as Google Voice, Textnow, Skout, and Facebook Messenger, The State, a Columbia-based newspaper, reported.”South Carolina undercover sting busts 11 men creeping kids online (nypost.com) (Please do not judge me for the NY post article. I read ALL the publications as part of my research.)
*sigh. And unfortunately, there are a lot of stories like this. Go looking. The frequency of these busts is astounding. So grateful law enforcement are on it.*
Am I being an alarmist?
Some people are going to think that I am. I encourage you to do some digging of your own. Perhaps in your own locality. In my world, when someone who tends to give good advice and is grounded and solid raises a flag, I take the time to consider what they are saying.
Suggestions that You can Bring On Board, Now
In the event you are thinking about creating a grounded internet safety strategy, here are some simple suggestions to start bringing awareness into your communications.
Remember that not everyone you talk to is who they say they are. Part of the fun of the internet is to be able to have your identity, elsewhere. This is one reason why young people (and myself as a young person) love it. You can talk to people ANYWHERE who like the things you like. To the young people reading this: Remember that not everyone on the other end is the age they say they are, or even the same gender. There are, unfortunately, adult men who pretend to be young girls on the internet to exploit young girls and boys. (Maybe adult women do it too, I have not yet seen a case of that specifically listed but it probably happens.) Remember young men, this is not just a ‘girl’ thing. People who would like to blackmail etc. do the same types of things to get explicit material out of you they do the young ladies.*Be careful of sending any type of picture to anyone that you have never met. If you do send pics to friends or people you have met, keep it pg.*
Take off the family identifying stickers from your car that show all your family names and figures in stick figures. That is like here, predator, is the name of my child. You can now follow us and call their name sometime, pretending you are an adult who ‘knows’ them. Kids go with adults who know them by name, it is a thing that happens. Why bother chancing it?
Consensually apply a tracker to your childs’ phone that you can turn on if you lose them or you feel they are in trouble. (Doing it without their consent is kind of creepy. Letting them know it is there lets them know they have help. They will be able to use it if they need to, potentially even turning it on from their end to help themselves and contact you.) My family has this as part of our safety plan if one of us has to go somewhere without the other. It is a good one, if done in a non creepy, non controlling way.
Discuss an internet safety plan. This could include a) not ever using location tags because those make you very easy to track, pattern, and find; b) never use their last name; c) do not tell strangers where they are going to be ahead of time (or even friends they text chat with but have never met); c) do not send pictures of your body parts including feet; and d) make sure not to post pictures to social media that show easy ways to identify where you go every day, like a school name. Sounds excessive? I live by the same code myself and it has helped me stay safe, as a lady of the internet. It is easy to remember these few things.
Do not assume that just because a person is an adult, coach, or teacher, they are safe. Even though this is not internet specific, I do think it applies here because it is another huge hole in the kid safety net. You would think we could trust a school, right? Wrong. People get into positions with kids that sometimes should not be. I know I have a lot of parents who have kids that are traveling athletes, scholars, and musicians. Yay! If you billet your child and put them in the hands of another person or people, you need to make sure those people are safe. Children usually interact with a number of adults through the various activities that they do at home, school, extra-curriculars, and with other family members. All of the people who make this up are part of their social safety net. When young people ‘go away’ or spend time ‘in the care’ of others regularly out of their normal regional context, they begin losing direct access to parts of that safety net they used to regularly engage with. There are less ‘eyes’ on them and places for them to express and vent. The best and most direct way I can say it is this. Living with the headmaster is great, unless the headmaster turns out to be an abusive weirdo. You cannot assume that the headmaster is not one just because they are headmaster. *Same goes for religious figures. Unfortunately. I know this one having met several very dangerous ones, myself.* Who do you turn to for help if you live with the headmaster, the religious teacher, or the coach, but they are the problem? In these cases, setting up a communication plan and talking about what to do if a powerholder in your away from home life is not being good to you.
Going away and having these experiences with sports, dance, music, school, and in pursuit of dreams are powerful and rewarding opportunities to be celebrated. Congratulations if this is you!!! Have the most fun. If you (or you child) does this or is about to, make sure they have ways to express they do not feel safe if that situation comes about. Do comprehensive check-ins. Watch closely for changes in attitude. If their behaviour starts to go down, or their grades, take it seriously as a potential indication that their environment is not right. Not that they, the young person, are wrong. The first indication is a change in behaviour and it is not always happening ‘because they miss being home’ or ‘because they are having adjustment issues’.
In these situations, the internet can really help with safety. Being able to chat regularly through video and text helps you keep a close eye on things. It also gives young people the reassurance they have you their parents, keeping an eye on things. Having a ‘key word’ or a phrase that your young person can say and you will know, “Something is up, they need me.”
If they are going to be in the home or care of another person, make sure your young person knows their corporeal rights, as well as what is ‘acceptable’ for an adult to act like around them. I know this is a bit ‘off course’, but it is so important. A lot of dangerous things happen through people we already know..
Create an escape plan and safety word: Planning helps. Discuss what to do if your child notices someone following them or if they are made feel uncomfortable. Identify check-points in your community or places they normally go that could be ‘safe places’. Give them a ‘safe word’ they can text you that you will immediately know they need help.
Talk to them about safety and do not mince the truth: Young people sometimes just do not want to listen, and I was one of them so I get it. One of the main reasons that a threat is not taken seriously is simply because one does not yet know it exists, or how direct it is. in these cases, knowledge is power. Actually talking to the young person in your life and letting them know the real dangers out there is going to help them come to grips with the reality of it. Show them ‘Undercover Underage’ (listed in the resources below). Show them the ones in your region. Show them the reality. Most are smart enough to not want to tangle with danger once they realize it exists. Showing them the what and how also helps them form their defense.
Check their internet activities on computer and cell phone. I know, I know. Who wants to do that? And who wants their parents to do that to them? Sneak outs may merit a thorough phone search. I would also watch out for lots of outfit changes and being ‘dolled up’ for no reason while staying ‘at home’. Most often it is just for fun and to express a personality. Sometimes, it is not.
Make sure your children know what is appropriate and safe on a phone (and not) Parents, we grew up in an age where we did not have to worry about being manipulated by a message or picture we sent to a crush we had when we were 14 and did not know better. Most of the messages back in those olden days were on a piece of paper and pictures, actual pictures, had to be printed at a photo-lab. The youth in our lives do not have that luxury. Make sure they know that screen recording is a thing. That ‘quick video’ being sent can be recorded, even on a disappearing app. That people you send pictures and notes about yourself to can record, save, and send them to someone else. It sounds self evident, but it is not. A person who would never think to do that to another person is presumably innocent to also not realize someone would do that to them. Arm them with that knowledge. Make sure they also know that if they sent a picture to someone and that person is now trying to use that to blackmail them, that person is committing a crime. Let them know that if this happens to them, it is safe to come and talk to you.
On that note, it is also important to talk to youth about what is ‘right’ to ask of another person and what is right to share that another person sent to you. (Adults do not really have that one under their belt these days, it seems. Probably because our generation never got internet education, it was just plopped at our feet.) This includes ‘nudes’ or provocative pictures. The sharing of these images is becoming normalized and it is up to us to put that boundary there. On the note of the receiver who may like to giggle and reshare: A young person circulating an image of another young person that is uncovered is considered to be circulating illegal material. ****Everyone wants to stay very far away from that one. Extremely far. So far away, just never do it. Stress this. Add it in with the sex talk. For real.****
Remember. This is about educating them about factors for safety. Not punishment. In saying all of this, I do not advocate ruling with an iron fist. That creates rebellion. The internet is an important part of life and discovery. It is a tool for research, friendship, and business. Taking it away basically blocks a child from being able to access information and opportunities for self-development. The internet is part of the fabric of life. We may as well just be safe and have fun with it.
This is one of those things where the more information one has, the better they are going to be able to recognize what is going on and to advocate for themselves. Part of growing up is learning how to be in the world. This is part of the world. If you have a young person (or parent) in your life that you would like to have a conversation about this with, do it. Show them this article and ask them questions about the people they talk to on the internet. (Or, conversely, show this post to your parent and let them know you want to talk about your internet life.) Has anyone ever made them feel uncomfortable or asked them for any of this? Some may say no but know friends who have had this experience. Creating the space for conversation in a non-threatening, non-blaming way is helpful. An open dialogue, creating a welcoming household, and keeping an eye on things also counts. The internet is a great place, if we let it be. We just need that extra little education on how to stay out of the weeds.
This is the world now and it does not magically change when someone turns 18, These dangers still exist and impact adults too. Maybe some of you have picked up some tips reading this. If so, cheers!
Internet Literacy is Becoming Part of Our Lives
What I wrote here in terms of safety, consent, and basic knowledge of what can be behind that screen is what will eventually become part of internet literacy training. Some schools may have already begun programs like this, from what I hear from the parents I know, it is not yet widespread. These are the things that have started happening since the late 90’s that a lot of people my age or older (parent age) are just really aware of. It is not part of their lives and it was not as prescient a danger when we were young. Though I can very much in retrospect tell someone that I was chatting to in a chat room at 13 was probably a lot older than they presented themselves to be. Thank goodness that conversation was pg and about poetry.
One of the reasons I have not listed all of the news stories I have read here is that the vast majority of them bring about details of specific children and their exploitation. Even though unnamed, energetically speaking I do not want to draw the attention of a whole lot of curiousity by ‘making an example’ of their situation. It creates a psychic ripple. Those kids have been through enough. Check the news for yourself, or at least start paying attention to it. You will see soon enough, the stories.
I highly recommend you sit down and watch the entire Discovery plus series ‘Undercover Underage”. It is done by a research group who went fishing and who were involved in real life arrests. This is a great one, especially for young people who are not quite believing ‘this could happen to me. It features an adult pretending she is a young person to search out the very types of internet activity this post is about. I felt comfortable sharing it as a resource because it is not drawing attention to the abuse of a specific child and ‘making them an example’. Showing the young person in your life (or seeing for yourself) how how these people operate will help them be able to identify it if any of them try to sneak into their inbox or dm. This is a link to one of the episodes on youtube: Roo Powell | Undercover Underage on Discovery Plus – YouTube.
A direct example: Social Media Dangers Exposed by Mom Posing as 11-Year-Old – YouTube.
Internet Safety Tips – National Children’s Advocacy Center (nationalcac.org) (which leads to a handful of other vetted resources).
If anyone out there has additional resources, please send them in!
Thanks for taking the time to read this public safety announcement. Uncomfortable and stuck out like a sore thumb as it may seem, this is Mars in Aries.
*If you would like to set up monthly or bi-monthly check-ins where I chat with you (as a young person) or the young person in your home, I will be available for that activity soon. I am happy to be a check-point and trusted guide. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if this is you.*
Katie IndiCrowFeel free to share this resource with the link to friends and family. Work with it as a conversation starter in your own home. I cannot post in on any social media in full text because it will get me completely shadowbanned or put off. That is what happens when you talk about safety on the very same platforms being used to target people. Another reason why I mostly refrain from all social media. You do not have to go through the trenches to find my teachings. They are all nice and safe, right here.