At the core of every child is a deep sense of longing for love, acceptance, belonging and safety. These intrinsic needs are hardwired within the heart of every human being. Even a child raised in the most affirming, stable and loving environment will long for these things not only from home but from their community and peers as well. But for many children whose family lives and support structures have failed to meet these needs, the void is so great and they become particularly vulnerable.
We live in a world where we are becoming increasingly exposed through technology. Social media platforms allow us unlimited opportunities to engage with people often times giving us a false sense of security and connectedness. It’s a realm where people can build others up, tear people down, form relationships and carefully craft online identities. And it is in this realm that vulnerable children are easily influenced and also where predators and exploiters lie in wait.
So what do technology, social media and this yearning to belong and be loved have to do with each other? In the work that I do with victims of sex trafficking, I have seen firsthand how these things go hand in hand to become the fertile breeding ground for predators to gain a child’s trust. Exploiters have a lot of patience and will spend whatever length of time necessary to build an online relationship in which the sole goal is to discover that child’s weak points and exploit it to their advantage. The first trafficking victim that I had ever encountered had been preyed upon in just this way. As a young girl she had been abused by her father and brother, which destroyed her sense of safety and trust as well as distorted her understanding of authentic love. So, when she met her trafficker online, he only need convince her that he would provide all that she lost and craved.
As I mentioned though, even children with solid, healthy families can still be vulnerable to predators online since they are naive and searching for validation both from within and outside the home. So, what can we as parents do to protect our kids from being vulnerable online?
Engage with them and be available. Do not make the false assumption that your kids need you around less as they become older and more independent. Adolescence and teen years are when our children need us to be more available than ever. Talk with them about anything and everything. Let them know that there is no taboo subject. Give them a safe space and the freedom to wrestle with their faith, question God, talk about sex, sexual identity, sexual temptation, and all the other things that we as parents sometimes find uncomfortable to talk about with our kids. Listen without judgement. This will cultivate within the family structure a sense of belonging, acceptance and safety that our children need.
Kids don’t need a smart phone. Let’s be real. Many kids have smartphones in their hands today because it makes our lives as parents easier and more convenient. But, until our children reach driving age they will rarely, if ever, be in a place without adult supervision. At school? At practice? At a friend’s house? There are always alternative “old school” ways for our children to reach us. Smartphones allow our children to have internet access at their fingertips 24/7. With that, comes increased opportunity for exposure to pornography, inappropriate relationships, and access to predators. Consider holding off on allowing your child to have a phone until they are driving age when they will get behind the wheel of a car. The risks of a smartphone in the hands of a child far outweigh the few conveniences it affords. Still feel like they need one? Go with an old school flip phone.
Be all up in their business. Of course it is important to lay a good foundation by educating your children about online safety and also by creating good boundaries and parental controls for their protection. But, our children should know that nothing is off limits for us as parents. We reserve the right to view text messages or online conversations, to know who their online “friends” are and to know their passwords. In the same way that we would never drop our child off alone in the middle of downtown Los Angeles assuming that they will be safe simply because we’ve instructed them to not talk to strangers, we should never drop them off, so to speak, within the expanse of online humanity simply because we’ve armed them with rules and education.
It is impossible to try and control every potential harm that could come to our children online. They are growing up in a quickly advancing technological world. But by doing what we can to foster environments both at home and within their social structures where they can feel safe, seen, heard and known and by establishing some firm boundaries that we remain engaged with, we can pray for God to bless our efforts and pour out protection over these human beings that are basically our hearts with arms and legs walking around on this planet.