Publisher’s View: Cyber-Stranger Danger

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No parent would willingly allow a stranger to enter their home, slip down the hallway unseen, enter their child’s bedroom, closing the door softly behind them.  Yet that’s exactly what’s happening through the portals of mobile devices, all too often leading to actual physical encounters arranged through such applications as Tinder, Snapchat, and texting.

Nine out of 10 American teenagers access the Internet through cellphones, tablets, or other mobile devices.  While most parents monitor their children’s text messages and email, almost one-third don’t, and new apps are constantly emerging that help hide interactions, particularly ones that consist of images.  As a result, there’s growing likelihood that a child will encounter someone in cyberspace that they’ve never physically met, who has no connection to their school, family, or recreational activities, and of whom their parents are completely unaware.

Often those encounters result in cyber-bulling.  Almost half of all teenagers have been sent intimidating or threatening messages.  One-fifth have confronted someone who has lied about who they are, a phenomenon sufficiently prevalent it has a name:  catfishing.

Meanwhile, academic pressures, a degradation in family and community cohesiveness, and saturation of social media, with its emphasis on curated photographs and “likes,” is eroding teenagers’ confidence, particularly girls.  This makes them more susceptible to “online grooming,” another trend popular enough to have its own definition: “actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, in order to lower the child’s inhibitions in preparation for sexual activity with the child,” according to the International Association of Internet Hotlines.

Risks of cyber-stranger danger are likely to grow, and get younger.  Today, an average American child is gifted their first mobile device when they’re 12; more than half of eight to 12-year-old’s have a cellphone.  It seems likely that before too long most eight-year-olds will possess such a device.  New technology is enabling trusted images to be manipulated to say or do just about anything.  “Cookie Monster” can tender an invitation to the park for a playdate; “Josh Hutcherson” can throw out a party invite.

We need to catchup to the cyber-wave that threatens to drown our children, and adopt stronger safeguards that keep strangers away.  Some interventions – no mobile device use in closed-door bedrooms; phone stowed faraway from sleeping children well before bedtime; adoption of devices like “Circle,” which, for a fee, filters and enforces time limits on Internet-enabled devices – are in parents’ hands. 

Others merit state action.  These include requiring all mobile devices to register their users’ age, which should in turn act to block access to inappropriate sites and apps, or require parental override to gain admittance to anything.  Such an approach is along the lines of requiring identification when buying alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis at a corner market.  Similarly, children-registered mobile devices should be enabled to make all incoming contacts appear on parents’ devices, so they can monitor with whom their kid is coming into contact, if not the substance of the interactions.

A fraction of a penny “text tax” should be placed on every message sent to a child-registered device, paid by the owner of the app or website being used for the communications, with the resulting revenues dedicated to supporting youth and children services, as well as associated law enforcement.  Children and their families should have ready-access to counseling and coaching services, as well as immediate, effective, and sensitive responses to cyber-bulling or worse.

Cyberspace is the new frontier.  It can be as dangerous as crossing the ocean a millennium ago, made even more so by the economic imperative that underpins the evil characteristics of seemingly innocent ventures, such as Tinder and Snapchat.  Its borders will continue to expand, creating constant new access to trolls and other Google goblins.  We need outposts out there, places of safety for our children, protection from things whose existence we haven’t yet even imagined.