I work with kids for a living and even I found this statistic mind-blowing.
According to Pew Research, of those kids who met friends online, one-third followed up with an in-person meeting. Kids are communicating and meeting on social media and while playing online games, and then meeting IRL (in real life).
As adults, when we think of meeting people online we often assume the negative: the Internet is filled with rapists, murderers and child molesters, and we shudder at the thought of our kids meeting someone in person after meeting online. The truth is kids don't feel the same way. To them, it's normal to extend online friendships to real life.
Remember when you educated your kids on “stranger danger?” That message seems to be outdated and teens don't think it applies to the people they meet online. Online friends are no longer strangers once they start communicating. Some teens open up and connect more with online friends than they do with offline friends.
DON’T GET ME WRONG. I think the Internet is filled with people waiting to traffic your children. However, I’m hearing more and more of teens meeting up with people they met online. It’s happening.
Bottom line: Kids need to be educated how to do this safely, since this trend will continue.
Red flags to watch for
- The online friend seems too good to be true (chances are they are)
- They don’t know anyone your kid knows
- They don’t have many friends or contacts on their social media pages
- They pressure your child to do what they want when your child is trying to set boundaries, and they don’t respect those wishes
- They question your child's trust: “Don’t you trust me?” (No one who is trustworthy has to say they can be trusted)
- The person is asking your kid to keep the meeting secret
- If your child is lying and keeping their online friend from family and friends, this isn’t someone they should be meeting
If your kid insists, they should
- Make sure an adult knows where and when the meeting is taking place (better yet, take an adult and have them hang out nearby)
- Bring a friend (or friends)
- Meet in public and STAY in public
- Have their own transportation and don’t depend on the other person for transportation
- Use an exit strategy - have someone call or text 15 minutes after arriving to use as an excuse to leave if needed
- Not drink alcohol or use drugs, stay alert and sober
Parents, we can't dismiss these online relationships because this dynamic isn’t going away. Teach your kids to be safe, to trust their gut when it comes to the people with whom they communicate, and to set boundaries and limits. Let us know how it goes.
Cheryl Kosmerl, MSW, LCSW
I'm a clinical social worker and child advocate. After more than 20 years of working with children and adolescents in a variety of settings I created Sexting Solutions, a successful program designed to teach kids to respect themselves and others, show empathy and stop abuse. Intended as an alternative to legal consequences for kids who were caught sexting, it focuses on building skills that develop a solid foundation for healthier adolescent years and beyond. Connect with me on LinkedIn by clicking the icon directly below.