Yes, I’ve seen that Coby Persin YouTube video, too:

I don’t normally watch viral videos, but being an advocate of online child security, I felt compelled to. After all, Persin demonstrated how easily any one’s underage child can be lured by predators to meet them in person via social media. So I dived in to see the results of his social experiment myself.

The viral video for me is interesting and at the same time nerve wracking to say the least. That may or may not be good feedback for any parent. On one hand, some were appreciative of Persin’s social experiment. On the other hand, some parents criticize it, too. According to Lenore Skenazy, an author of a parenting book, in her blog, “And what is the message? That young people shouldn’t trust anyone online? That’s like telling them not to trust anyone they meet in the off line world, too […] What is so hard to understand is that, first of all, our kids today are NOT in constant danger. Also: The vast majority of crimes against children are committed NOT by sneaky strangers, but by people they truly know.

“Of course it makes sense to teach our kids about Internet safety. That all is not always as it seems.  That they shouldn’t share too much information, or assume that what they post will ever disappear. But it is bizarre to act as if Facebook is teaming with stranger danger.”

“Never Talk to Strangers”—A Passé Mentality?

Thanks to our interconnected world, meeting and having conversations with strangers is no longer taboo to anyone, most especially to the kids and teens of this generation. In fact, part of the disruption brought about by social networks is how it brought new meaning to the word “friend”, which nowadays refer to “someone in your network”, regardless of whether one knows them personally or not. This also, in turn, changes a child’s perception on what is a stranger.

It’s true that an adult stranger posing as another teen on Facebook to target young girls happens in real life, as the Persin experiment proved; however, various studies and statistics show that strangers are the least of parents’ worries. In 2013, Everyday Health  released results showing that “the vast majority of online contacts [with strangers] are benign”. In another study from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), it shows that majority of those who abduct kids are people they know: an acquaintance, a friend of the family’s, or a neighbor.

Internet Safety: Guardrails for Your Child Who is Sociable Online

When Parents and Abducted Children Together (PACT), a London-based child protection charity group, proposed that parents and schools should abandon “stranger danger” and instead focus on teaching kids how to recognize a dangerous situation rather than what a dangerous person is, I’m inclined to agree. Everyone starts out as strangers at some point before two people become friends, business partners, and spouses. Since the encounters in the video started off on a social network, let’s identify some lessons or pointers parents can teach their child about social sites, how they can handle certain situations, and how they can conduct themselves appropriately online.

  • People are not always what they appear to be online. In fact, anyone, not just kids and teens, should be careful when meeting new people online. Help them realize that in the World Wide Web, anybody can pose as anyone. Being able to identify if someone is telling the truth is difficult enough to assess face-to-face in the real world for the first time. If one is speaking through a monitor, the difficulty increases exponentially. As such, care and caution must be observed all the time.
  • There are certain information that can be shared online publicly or with someone you’re just beginning to know. Home addresses, phone numbers, personal email address, account passwords, other personally identifiable information (PII) and private matters should never be shared online. There are a lot of things kids and teens don’t want their families, friends, teachers and even future employers to know, so why share them with strangers? This, of course, shouldn’t limit your child from sharing about their favorite sport, book, movie, or band, or those adorable cat pictures.
  • Think thrice before posting or sharing certain images online. Studies show that kids and teens posting images of themselves in sexually revealing clothes are move likely to receive unwanted advances, attention, or solicitation from people they don’t know. It’s best to not open an opportunity to get in contact with someone whom you or your child may regret meeting in the end.
  • When it comes to physical safety, a well-timed post can make a huge difference. Never share holiday plans they will be having with either their friends or with the family. If they want to share the experience with their contacts, it’s best to do it after it all happened. This way, threats of burglary or someone who want to spoil the fun is completely avoided.
  • It’s okay to say “no”. If a child is being convinced by someone to meet them in person at any time of the day at a certain place alone, then the child’s answer should be “no”. It is actually easier to turn down someone online than in the real world. If this person disregards your child’s “no” and attempts to draw him/her out by saying “you’re old enough to go alone”, then it’s best to simply block this person and never get in contact with them again.
  • Encourage kids to share their online experience, both positive and negative. It’s not like you want to know every single small detail that is happening to them online or every single topic of conversation and person they talk to. Our goal here is to further enhance the positive experience they had online and try to turn things around for the good if the experience is something negative. Not only can this foster an open communication between parent or guardian and the child but also open opportunities for learning for both.
  • “Safety first”. One may easily forget the above points simply because your child may have a difficult time wrapping their head around them, especially if it’s the first time you’re telling them about Internet safety. That’s fine. At the very least, make them remember two words that can save their life both online and offline: “Safety first”.

Persin’s video offered us a glimpse of what might happen if kids and teens these days don’t nip danger in the bud. We hope the shock—or wake up call to some—we got out of the social experiment would be less memorable than the numerous lessons we can take away from it.

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Jovi Umawing