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Online Safety for Youth During COVID-19


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Online Safety for Youth During COVID-19

 

 

By Jessica Skultety,
Community Outreach Associate

The COVID-19 pandemic has signaled, for students of all ages, increased time online due to remote learning and extra screen time previously devoted to school and extracurriculars. Especially during this stressful and uncertain time, there are also some really important hazards related to online activities to keep in mind.

  • 1 in 3 teens will experience dating abuse before high school graduation, including technological abuse. Dating abuse may increase during COVID-19 due to tension and uncertainty (though it’s not the fault of the virus – abusers make that choice). Technological dating abuse can include:
    • Expecting your constant and immediate answers to messages
    • Limiting your followers on social media or phone contacts, or who follows you
    • Checking your phone without permission
    • Pressuring or requiring you to share passwords, private photos or videos
    • Sharing your private information, photos, or videos without permission (which can also be illegal) and/or blackmailing you with this threat
    • Demanding to know your location at all times and/or to share GPS location
    • Taking your phone for “safe keeping” or hiding or destroying means of technological connection with others
  • During the COVID-19 crisis, an abusive dating partner might blame the behaviors above on the virus, saying they want to “protect” their dating partner or that they are “worried” about their health and safety. The actions mentioned, though, do not promote equality in a relationship and do not ensure the safety of the target.
  • During the pandemic, children, preteens and teens might be suffering socially and feel isolated from others, making them even more open to online threats, including offers of friendship, love, and gifts from strangers, etc. The internet is a breeding ground for human trafficking and New Jersey is a notorious hot spot. As Lt. John Pizzuro of the NJSP Internet Crimes Against Children Unit recently commented, “Our children are home but so are the predators that look to exploit them” (NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking).

The Safe+Sound Somerset Teen Power & Control Wheel shows tactics that friends and dating partners use to gain power and control over a target, including using technology. The Equality Wheel is a good reference for what a healthy teen relationship and friendships should look like. This tool is a great one to keep in mind when interacting online or with technology.

 

Teen Power and Control Wheel

Teen Equality Wheel


Privacy and Safety Tips for Preteens and Teens

Make the switch from thinking “This can’t happen to me,” to “I can make some easy decisions and changes to protect myself, my friends, and my family online.”

 

  • Trust your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable about something you see online or the way someone treats you, that’s valid and it matters. Cut off contact with that person and take a break from that program or online activity.
  • Only interact and accept gifts in video games and online with people you actually know in real life.
  • Make your social media profiles private and NEVER share passwords with anyone. If a friend or dating partner asks you to share them, take this as a warning sign and consider reevaluating if this person has your best interests in mind. Change passwords regularly.
  • Turn off all GPS sharing features on your phone (including Snapchat, Google Maps, etc.) and do not share with friends or dating partners. Your peers never need to know your location at all times.
  • Never share or store private information online or on your phone. Try to stay as anonymous as possible. Shared personal information like home addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses can be used to fill mailboxes and answering machines with ads. In some cases, though, predators use this information to begin illegal or indecent relationships. Also, be wary of filling out quizzes and sharing them on social media – this could give people clues to your password information.
  • Choose your online words and actions wisely because your Internet history never truly disappears. Just because you delete something doesn’t mean it’s gone. Someone can save your photos or conversations, or it could be saved in the cloud. Everything you say or do online, even in private groups, can be trackable and permanent – this can harm the privacy and safety of you and your family, and/or, even years later, make your actions known to colleges and workplaces.
  • Cyberbullying is not normal and is not okay. Say something, report, block, screenshot, and tell a trusted adult (family member, teacher, coach) what’s going on. They can provide support, resources, and help you report to authorities if needed.
  • Know when to talk to a trusted adult or reach out to an organization, like Safe+Sound Somerset, or the police. It’s understandably hard to talk about something potentially embarrassing or scarring to your life (for example, a photo or video that someone is threatening to share), but consider how much worse the situation (and your mental health) can get if you don’t tell anyone or report, if necessary. Depending on the situation, cyber-harassment, stalking, and terroristic threat charges can apply.
    • Call or text the Safe+Sound Somerset hotline at 866-685-1122 to talk if you are feeling uncertain or threaten about how a dating partner is treating you.
    • See the resources list below for more information.

Safety Tips for Parents

Make the switch from thinking, “This won’t happen to my kids,” to “This unfortunately can and does happen, so I can take some simple steps and preventative measures to protect the privacy and well-being of my family.”

  • Have age-appropriate discussions with your children teaching them to be good online citizens – Pre-K (or as young as they are accessing the internet) through late teens:
  • Make sure they know can come to you regarding ANYTHING that makes them uncomfortable online. Most teens may only feel comfortable talking to their friends about cyberbullying, private photos or videos being shared, etc. If not you, maybe another trusted adult can be an outlet for them.
  • Encourage them to only interact with and accept gifts in video games, etc. from people they actually know in real life. Gifts are a common form of grooming by human traffickers and abusers.
  • Words and actions matter – anything kids post online is permanent. Even if they later delete the material, it DOES NOT disappear as others may have saved it locally or on the cloud.
  • Follow up with children at a later date to increase the likelihood that they’ll come to you about something that concerns them.
  • Educate yourself about teen dating abuse, sextortion, human trafficking, and the apps/games/websites your kids visit. See the resources below as a starting point.
  • While screen time may increase during the stay-at-home order, also encourage and plan off-screen activities for your family.