‘Don’t talk to strangers’ is one of those rules that we drill into children from as early an age as we can. If you went to school in the 80s or 90s you probably remember seeing videos in which a creepy man in a car offers a child sweets if they get into the passenger seat. It’s a lesson that feels more relevant than ever in a digital context, when we can strike up a conversation with strangers anywhere on earth with just a few keystrokes.
Since their digital and ‘real’ lives are closely intertwined, children can be unaware of exactly where to set boundaries when it comes to interacting with strangers online. A survey by the Centre for Cyber Safety and Education
in the US found that 40% of children aged 8-13 had chatted to someone they didn’t know while online. Around half (53%) of those children had revealed their phone number; 30% had sent text messages; 21% had spoken to a stranger on the phone, and 11% had tried to meet with a stranger in real life.
With scary statistics like these it’s understandable that parents would want to ban children from talking to anybody online that they don’t know in real life, but we feel a more nuanced approach is needed, both online and offline. Programmes like Clever Never Goes
are attempting to rewrite the rules around ‘stranger danger’, by helping children develop an internal sense of when a conversation has turned dangerous. Take the example of meeting someone who’s walking their dog in the park: it can be OK for a child to say hello, or even ask to pet the dog, but they should know how to react and seek help if the stranger tries to lead them away.
The same principle can apply online, in games like Minecraft or Fortnite where players can interact with each other and join each other’s games. It can be an opportunity to meet new people, collaborate and share creative ideas - but if someone tries to meet up with your child outside of the game, it may be time to block or report them.
Of course, there are extra issues of safety to consider. People can hide their identities online, so it can be difficult to know exactly who children are talking to, while asking questions about someone’s family, friends and interests can lead to giving away sensitive personal information. However, if we completely insulate children from interactions with strangers, we risk preventing them from developing instinctual knowledge of when it is and isn’t appropriate. It might lead them to keep their conversations online a secret, and prevent them from coming to us as trusted adults
when they do encounter something that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
The best thing parents can do is engage with children’s internet use regularly, ask questions about the games they’re playing and who they’re talking to, and make sure that children know how to voice their concerns if they feel uneasy. Role-playing can be a great way to give children a set of responses they can draw on, even in the middle of an uncomfortable situation.
‘Stranger Danger’ might be a memorable message, but it’s also an unnecessarily scary one - even in a digital context. These days it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to completely prevent your children from coming into contact with people they don’t know while they surf the internet. What we can do is teach them to understand the difference between safe and unsafe interactions, recognise the warning signs, and take steps to protect themselves.