Lessons from a 'kid-friendly' app: Dealing with Predators

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From one of our moms in the MSM Community:

My son loves to create “skins” (different appearances) for his Minecraft characters on an app called Skinseed. This app is rated “E” for everyone. However there is also a live chat feature, and we’ve had several conversations about safety because we’re not sure who is lurking in the community.

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One day all my fears were validated. As I searched through my son’s recent skins and scanned the attached chats, I suddenly saw his birthday flash across the screen. My heart skipped a beat. After all our talks about online stranger danger, my kid wasn’t really giving out personal information, was he?

I scrolled back to the beginning of the chat and chills ran down my spine. It was the pattern I had read horror stories about. In fact, I had just read an article on Protect Young Minds about grooming children, and here it was in black and white, right before my eyes, happening to my own child.

My son had created a profile on Skinseed mimicking a favorite video game. The stranger liked that video game too, so that’s how they met. They started role-playing as two characters from the game who have a romantic interest, so that line was immediately blurred.

At first the conversation was casual, although a little flirty because they were “in character,” but innocent and childlike. However, as it progressed I noticed some uncomfortable patterns. My child was the one doing all the talking. There were long chunks of text from my child followed by comments from the stranger like, “Omg, me too!” and  “ya i know.” The one that really made my skin crawl was: “We have so much in common its like we were made to be together.”

 My child is gray. The stranger is brown.

My child is gray. The stranger is brown.

The stranger also used flattery. And when my son asked a question, instead of answering, the person would ask the same question back. For instance, take the exchange below. What’s wrong with this picture? (Please keep in mind these are direct quotes, including capitalization and punctuation. Notice the difference between the two, even though they are supposedly in the same grade at school.)

My son: how old are you

Stranger: How old are you?

My son: … i’m 10 plz don’t think less of me

Stranger: Omg i’m the same age as you.

My son: I was hoping that

Stranger: How old did you think i was i thought you were like 15 cause your so mature

This was not an isolated incident. “Coincidences” abounded throughout the chat. Once the stranger even claimed to have the same battery percentage remaining on “her” tablet as my son did and then “she” had to go. Wow! Amazing!

I say “her” in quotations because the person actually told my son: “im a girl so don’t worry!” Maybe it’s just me, but I found that a little odd.

Another indicator this person wasn’t who they claimed to be? At one point, they had a little trouble keeping their story straight.

My son: so when did your first day of school start?

Stranger: few days ago

My son: mine was yesterday i just started fifth grade

Stranger: Whoops todays My third week

What? Whoops? If you really are a kid and you have been in school for three weeks, it’s not likely that you--whoops--forget you’ve been in school for more than a “few days.”

As an adult and a protective mother, these patterns were crystal clear to me. But apparently not to my son. He fell right into the web. No pun intended.

I was amazed to see the pattern of trust this stranger had built in such a short time. Throughout their conversations, my son mentioned our church, talked about his little brother, and sometimes discussed what we were doing each day. He also brought up his best friend, who is also on Skinseed, so now this stranger has the ability to contact that boy too.

When I finally sat down with my child to chat about all this, I did not get angry at him. I have learned to separate my freak-out sessions from my interactions with my kids. I cried with my husband behind closed doors, but not with my child. I’ve learned it’s more powerful to use experiences like this to teach a lesson when I am in the moment with them, and I can’t do that if I’m in panic mode.

By the time I talked with my son, I had already processed my negative emotions and put them behind me. So, instead of yelling and fighting, we were able to snuggle up by the fire. Then I casually asked him to sign into his tablet and show me around his latest projects on Skinseed.

After a while, I pulled up the disturbing  conversation, asked if he knew the person on other end, and suggested she might not be the 10-year-old girl she claimed to be. Then I told him we were going to read the conversation aloud to test my theory. He would be himself, and I would be the stranger.

As we read the conversation, I pointed out things I found suspicious. He is a bright kid. He began to see the patterns too. When he realized what had happened--that he had likely given his birthday, his best friend’s name, etc., to a total stranger and possibly a predator--it shook him. After we were finished, I said, “What do you think we should do now?” At the end of the day, it was his idea to delete the Skinseed community and turn off wifi access to his ipad for a while.

I admit things aren’t always so idyllic when we’re parenting through things like this. This is just a snapshot. In reality, there were hours and days in between these paragraphs that involved me stewing and agonizing over the situation. And my son’s side of the story might sound a little different too.

Just like all mamas in this generation, I’m learning how to do this stuff as I go. Here are some highlights that I picked up from this particular situation.

Tips for dealing with predators on 'kids’ apps:

  • Know children’s passwords, and do routine checks on all their devices.

  • Don’t stop with browsers; look inside apps too. I've heard that Bark has some great software to help with this.

  • Know the red flags of child grooming--the method predators use to gain children’s trust.

  • If you suspect your child has encountered a predator online, try not to panic or lose your temper at your child. Instead:

  1. Calmly confiscate the device.

  2. Tell your child you have found something that “is not safe” and you need time to figure it out.

  3. Take your time processing what has happened.

  4. Do NOT delete anything. In fact, try to document the encounter with screenshots, etc., in case you need the information later.

  5. When you feel you are ready, have an open discussion with your child about the situation.

  6. Make a game plan together about how to move forward. (Delete the app, turn off wifi, change the settings to eliminate live chat feature, etc.) Get your child’s input. They might have some good ideas!

  7. Try to make the conversation cooperative, rather than punitive. This will encourage your child to come to you with problems like this in the future, rather than trying to hide it. Be a TEAM!

If I've learned one thing, it's that we need to talk to our kids about online stranger danger early and often. And then we need to talk about it again ... and again ... and again. They need to understand that people are not necessarily who they say they are online. Here’s a great hands-on activity to help internalize this concept:

Activity: Who’s on the Internet?

(from “Teachable Recipes for Parents,” Netsmartz.org)

Ingredients:

Prepare a cookie recipe in advance switching the salt and sugar measurements.

Directions:

Have your child take a bite of the extra salty cookie.

Ask, how did the cookie taste? Were you surprised? Why?

Then tell your child, let’s imagine the cookie is someone on the Internet. Like the cookie, people online may seem appealing and wonderful on the surface, but they might not be as great as they seem. We have to be cautious when talking to people online. We trusted that the cookie was going to taste good because it looked good, but it didn’t end up being the type of cookie we would want. People on the Internet are the same way - we can’t trust that they will always be the type of person we want to know and share things with.

Now make your favorite cookie recipe with your child!

Parenting in the digital age is hard! And predators are scary! Sometimes we might be tempted to run screaming through the streets rather than dealing with these things. But we can do this! Give yourself permission to take it a day at a time and just do your best.

Images:
Skinseed (header/featured image) from amazon.co.uk
Screenshot of community (top) from youtube.com