The dangerous mix of social distancing and social media

At this point, I’m okay with admitting, we really don’t know what we’re doing. We are charting unknown waters and just trying to stay afloat. We are separated, isolated, and socially distanced.  Some of our kids are living the dream life of video game marathons, Tik-Tok dance offs and Instagram live feeds of all their favorite stars straight to their living rooms.  This is their new reality. They are staying social the best way they know how.  However, there is a darker side to non-fettered, free access to the internet and those social media sites.  Predators are counting on your children being accessible online and they want to get to them by any means necessary.

My daughter is 12. She is a rule follower almost to a fault. It physically pains her to see others making unwise choices. Her father is a police officer and her mother spends a lot of her time sharing various messages to kids of all ages about the consequences of choosing a negative life path. This little girl knows a lot about the dangers of social media, sexting, predators, and how permanent little decisions can be, more than most 40-year olds. So, when she came to me one day in tears, lost, afraid and uncertain of how to help, I knew it was serious. My daughter has a very close friend, she is also 12. Recently, she has fallen “in love” with a 17-year old boy via an app called Discord. Discord was originally set up as a social networking hub where gamers could get together and talk about strategy, share screen shots, discuss campaigns etc.  Often you will see Youtubers mentioning their Discord groups to join in on whatever discussions they have going on. It’s not the app itself that is bad: it is the fact that the developers have very lenient guidelines to what can be posted, how easy it is to access for any age all content, even pornographic adult content, and the limited amount of information they gather from their users that leads to an incredible amount of anonymity when trying to find out who these predators are.  

It starts out with a simple conversation. Lots of questions: How old are you? Male or female? What do you do for fun? Then miraculously your new friend, is close in age, the opposite sex, and has all the same likes you do. The grooming begins. Flattery, humility, sharing hopes and dreams, fears and hardships.  Your child begins to be invited into these chat groups where photos are shared, vulgar repulsive language and descriptions of sex acts are rampant. But it’s all for fun, and this is something we can share together pleads the new “friend”.  An incredibly close social connection is fostered. And then the personal requests begin. “Send me a picture of your face, of your breasts, of you naked.”  If your child denies these requests, the threats start. “I thought you cared about me.  What if I told you I love you, why don’t you love me? If you don’t send me a picture, I’ll tell your mom you’ve watched porno with me.” After all, your child has shared every intimate detail of their life with this friend. You would be easy enough to find, too. Sounds terrifying doesn’t it?

Luckily, my daughter’s friend’s story has a happy ending. After telling the boy her best friend’s dad is a cop, he cut off all contact with her and blocked her completely. It was then and only then my daughter’s friend realized she had been fooled and manipulated. She had shared intimate photos with someone she barely knew and now has no idea where they will end up.  She learned a hard lesson but has promised to never do anything so stupid again in her life.  This was all done out of a sense of social connection, a sense of belonging, of finding connections and being loved.  

Do you know where your child spends their day online?  Could they possibly have friends you don’t know about?  In this story, Discord is the villain, but any one of your child’s social media apps can essentially create the same dangers. Safety is key.  Please be vigilant about their online use and ask about the apps on their phones. Wanting a social life is perfectly normal and predators will take every opportunity to victimize your child if they can.  Love and family time may not be the only answer, but I can guarantee you children are a lot less likely to search for it online if they have it at home.

• Stephanie Bell is Executive Director of Pierce County Family Connection.