Parents, do you know what 420, TDTM and GNOC mean in cyber speak? Whether you do or don’t, there’s a good chance your child does – 420 means marijuana, TDTM means Talk Dirty to Me, and GNOC means Get Naked on Cam. This language, which includes a P991 (parent alert), was specifically created to keep parents in the dark. But the development of a coded language is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways in which children can get sucked into the dark side of the internet, where there are cyber stalkers, posers, paedophiles, blackmailers and various types of bullies.

iStock_000018205640SmallI’ve found that too often parents cloister themselves with the reassuring (but false) thought that surely their clever/sensible/sheltered/whatever child will not be affected by cyber threats, yet incidents of cyber bullying and blackmail can and do crop up wherever there is internet access. Peer pressure, naiveté, adolescent experimentation and rebellion prompt a range of children from all sorts of backgrounds to engage in harmful online relationships and activities. Cyber bullies and blackmailers therefore need to be taken seriously by all parents, as it’s our responsibility to protect our children where they lack the insight and skills to protect themselves.

The ramifications of cyber bullying and blackmail can be devastating, from loss of self-worth and confidence to self-harm, even suicide. Since the internet is not going anywhere, and online business and socialisation looks set to only increase, banning kids from the internet is unrealistic and potentially damaging. We need to work with it. And I think we can all agree that ignorance and passivity will not protect our children from the dangers, but that knowledge and proactive behaviour can.

So what do you need to know and do as a parent to protect your children? The answer to this question is something that has engaged me for a long time, both as a parent and as a digital strategist. There is no neat answer, but there are definitely tools and strategies that can help you, and taking time to properly learn about the dangers is important.

A large part of our children’s social and leisure world is web-based, from instant messaging to social networks (e.g. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) and online games, and we cannot monitor everything they say and do. There are individuals and gangs who surf the net looking to establish connections with youngsters, gain their trust, and then exploit them. Such people often misrepresent themselves, posing as peers and romantic interests and so soliciting intimate photos and confidences. They may then threaten to share or expose the nude photos, revealing chats and so on unless the child pays up. Shame and desperation often keep children from turning to their parents, and they instead act out in harmful ways, including suicide.

In the past, when a child reached home they felt safe at least for a time from bullies. This is no longer the case – bullies can now follow their victim home, harassing them on social media. The absence of a respite is part of what makes cyber bullying so vicious. Cyber bullying can take many forms: often it’s school bullies or ‘frenemies’ posting embarrassing photos, starting rumours or saying mean or even hateful things, while at other times its strangers, such as the online gamer talking vicious smack. Since children don’t generally have the emotional maturity to deal with bullies in a timely and decisive manner, they often end up trapped in harmful patterns of abuse.

As parents we need to equip our children with an understanding of the dangers as well as what to do should such a situation arise. My experience of the web from working as a digital business consultant has given me insights into the world of the web that will perhaps be new to you. In my digital booklet Raising digital citizens: Parenting in a digital age I offer practical advice for both parents and kids, suggesting various discussion points that will help parents guide their children and ensure they don’t keep problems a secret. I also talk about some of the tell-tale signs of a bullied or blackmailed child, I give a list of definitions to popular text acronyms being used by the youth, and I provide further resources for interested parents. I hope that after reading my booklet you will walk away feeling empowered in your interactions with your children around this issue.

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