I read a book recently called Just Sarah. It is a story about an autistic 13 year old who ends up being groomed and sexually exploited via snapchat. The story was quite scary in that, her parents had done their best to safeguard her yet it still happened. I have friends with similar stories and thought it was a subject well worth discussing.
Why are autistic teenagers in particular susceptible to online grooming?
Whilst there is a danger with all teens, autistic teens seem to be particularly at risk. Some struggle greatly making friends in person and find it easier to chat online and some struggle with social skills. Some may not understand the chats so are more vulnerable than their peers.
A lot of autistic teenagers take things literally and can believe what they are told. This could be very dangerous as a stranger telling a child they are their friend and the same age as them could be taken as fact.
What are the biggest danger areas online?
A lot of autistic children love watching YouTube videos and may even have their own YouTube accounts. This means they can comment on other peoples videos and other people can comment on theirs. This could potentially cause a problem if they aren’t too sure what it is ok to write online and there is a danger of accidentally giving away personal information.
Obviously there are dangers with browsing the internet in general and accidentally stumbling across inappropriate sites.
Gaming on the PC, phone apps or games consoles:
This is a big one. A lot of games nowadays are online and you play against other people. You do not necessarily know the people you are playing against and often there is some sort of chat feature. In many seemingly childish games there is the ability to “add friends”. This is hard for parents to monitor and unfortunately many children meet not very nice people whilst playing games. A popular game at the moment, fortnite, has a feature where players can be invited to “parties” which are essentially chat rooms. People in the chats can add other people and this could end up with a child chatting to strangers when their parents think they are playing a child’s game.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, you name it, teens are probably on at least one of them. All of them have the ability to privately message and add or be added by strangers. Most have an age rating of 13 and above. A lot of children under 13 are using them too. Facebook and twitter chats are saved, instagram is more dangerous as chats disappear after they have been read. Most social media sites nowadays have the ability to “go live” or add to a “story” meaning teens can show what they are doing (and therefore where they are!) to the world.
Most, if not all, teenagers have mobile phones and most will have some kind of messaging app to contact family and friends. Some of these are safer than others. Apps like WhatsApp work in much the same way as text messaging with the added bonus of being able to send pictures and videos for free. imessaging is the same. There are other apps though such as snapchat which include the feature of “snaps” or messages disappearing after they are read. Snapchat is very popular amongst children and teenagers at the moment and “streaks”, series of messages between friends, become like a competition seeing who can message the most. Snapchat groups are very popular and can include people who aren’t your child’s contacts. There is also a snapchat add feature where you can add suggested “friends” and there is the ability to see exactly where a user is at any time if they have their location switched on.
These apps are generally rated age 13 plus.
So how can we safeguard our teenagers?
On the PC:
Web blockers with parental controls. Some internet providers such as BT provide these as part of the service or they are easily available online. Be aware though that they are not 100% safe. Not every site is trawled, some slip through and if a child is good at computers there are ways around them. They will not always protect from chat within games if the games themselves are age appropriate.
Check the history
Regularly checking your child’s browsing history is important and can show you what sites they have been on. This is easily done, however if you have a child who knows how to work a computer then chances are they know how to clear browsing history too! Use this method but don’t fully rely on it to tell you what your child is doing online.
Move the PC
Move the PC downstairs where you can keep an eye on your child and what they are doing.
They might not like this option but if they want to use their computer they will soon get used to the idea. You don’t need to be watching over their shoulder but the occasional glance or regular check will help to safeguard them. Be wary of suddenly closed browsing windows as you walk in the room and be aware that there is the ability to re-open recently closed windows in the settings if you need it.
Chat on pc games:
Check their chat or disable chat on games if you can. Some games allow parental controls, some need a parents email to log in. Some games have limited or monitored apps.
Know what your child is playing
Be aware of games your child is playing and research if chat is a safe option before allowing it.
Don’t rely on your child not chatting
Don’t rely on just telling your child not to chat and don’t be fooled into thinking that children’s games are safe.
Use alternative servers for games
Using alternative, safer servers for games is a good idea. For instance if your child likes minecraft then consider letting them use Autcraft, a safer server with very monitored chat.
Monitor what your child watches
Monitor what your child is watching on YouTube. Some children’s videos are actually disguised inappropriate content.
Use your account
Instead of letting your child set up their own YouTube account, let them use yours. That way you can see what they have watched and what they subscribe to.
Social media sites:
Social media sites have an age rating for a reason however instead of assuming your child is old enough to use them because they are the right age, think about their mental age too. Also don’t assume they are safe just because they are 13 or over, no social media site with the ability to add people or privately message is safe for any teenager. Aside from talking to your teen about not adding or talking to strangers, you can also take some steps to make things safer.
Have all passwords:
Make it a condition of using social media that you have their password and are able to monitor their messages etc. They won’t like this but safety is more important.
Set settings to private:
On facebook you can set everything to private including who can find your child’s profile. Current profile pictures and banners are public however so consider your child having a photo which isn’t themselves for these. Setting all other pictures to “just friends” instead of “friends of friends” is also a safer option.
If your child has an instagram account, make sure you set it so that its private, this will mean that people have to request to follow your child. If you don’t do this then anyone at all on instagram can see their pictures.
Be aware of trends:
Be aware on all social media and messaging apps about current trends. At the moment children are putting up “rate me” status’ online which encourage peers to rate their appearance and if they would kiss, sleep with etc. Also instagram and snapchat stories with “add me” and their username are popular, unfortunately having a large number of friends is desirable.
Going Live on facebook or instagram is popular, this is difficult to monitor as it is usually too late by the time you find out if your child has shared personal information or anything they shouldn’t. Talk to your child about doing this. Unfortunately there is no way to stop them, however you can change their settings so only their friends can see their live stories.
Know that on instagram, private messages such as photos or videos can only be seen once before they disappear making instagram one of the more dangerous social media’s. Unfortunately it seems to be more popular with teenagers than the others.
Instant messaging apps:
Always keep an eye on your childs messages, whichever app they use. Consider taking their phone away at night and giving it back in the morning, using this time to have a check through messages.
If the app allows group chats, have a look at who is in the group and ask questions. It is too easy to assume all the names are people from school however most parents don’t know every name of everyone at their teenagers school and, with the growing trend of teens adding friends into group chats, and some of those friends being people they have met on a playstation game for instance, your child could be in a group with anyone!
Other than texts and imessages, whatsapp is probably the safest instant messaging app as messages arent deleted automatically and if they are deleted by your child it says “this message was deleted”. The app also stores any pictures or videos received in the phones memory so they can be accessed through the gallery. Obviously they can also be deleted from here.
The least safe messaging app, and also currently the most popular amongst children and teenagers is snapchat. With its competition style streaks, stories that disappear,messages that disappear and many group chats, there is always going to be an element of risk.
Dont enable location
To make snapchat as safe as possible if you are going to allow your child to use it, don’t enable location so your child doesn’t give away where they are.
Know your child’s password
Know your child’s snapchat login and password and check it regularly.
Get your own snapchat
Be your child’s friend on snapchat and follow their story so you know what they are posting. Know however that they can choose who sees their story so can easily hide it from you.
Don”t forget to check the added section
Check regularly who is trying to add your child.
Even if you do all this, however, it is extremely easy for strangers to contact or come into contact with your child on snapchat. There are many incidents of teenagers being groomed via snapchat and groups of children are often infiltrated through the app. It might therefore be safer to not allow your child access to the app. It’s surely better to be hated for not allowing them to have snapchat than for them to end up being groomed online due to being vulnerable.
Don’t make assumptions
Most importantly, never make assumptions. Never assume it won’t happen to your child. Never assume your child is safe. Never assume that because your child knows the dangers and the rules inside out that they won’t get caught out. Never assume they will tell you if anything happens to them.
How to get help if you think your child may be being groomed online
Even with the best of intentions and putting as much in place as we can to safeguard our kids, there is always the possibility that someone will get to them anyway without us realising it. If you find yourself in a position where you suspect your child is being groomed online, you can get advice from the NSPCC who can be contacted on:08088005000. If you find out your child is being groomed the NSPCC can also help point you in the right direction. You should report the incident to the police and you can do this by ringing 101 (in the UK) or you can also fill in a form online on the CEOP website and someone will ring you back. Most importantly if you find yourself in this situation, reassure your child it isn’t their fault and that they aren’t in trouble, you want them to be able to talk to you and not hide everything.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you would like to read more then feel free to follow my blog or like my Facebook page which I keep up to date with new posts as they are written. You can also find me on Twitter @KidsOnTour1