Part of the beauty of the Internet is how it can connect a student from Ohio to a pen pal in Singapore. However, it also comes with dangers because your child never knows who is on the other end. It might be another student from across the world or it could be a child predator in your own neighbourhood. Sadly, bullying has also skyrocketed with the popularity of the Internet and an abundance of devices that keep you and your child connected. Cyberbullying has already had tragic consequences. What can you do as a parent to combat it? How an Online Chat With Strangers Can Lead to Bullying!

Talk With Your Child about Online Chat with Strangers

The first step to preventing bullying of any kind is open communication with your child. She should receive messages from home, school and other locations — church or extracurricular activities, for example — that she is worthy. A sense of self-worth enables children to more easily brush off bullying and its effects. Take the time to discuss with your child what she should do — end the chat and come to you — if bullying ever happens before it occurs, so you can provide a safe environment to discuss bullying and provide her with tools to use in the future if she ever becomes a victim of bullying. Part of that discussion should centre around the type of information that bullies and predators will use against a person.

Of course, families teach children that it’s also not okay to be a bully in any situation. It’s important that your actions align with those words, however. Children who are an audience to bullying in the home whether it’s between parents or siblings are more likely to engage in that sort of behaviour because a model has been set for them. Teach your children the difference between playful and mean, and encourage children to step up when they see bullying happen anywhere, even online.

Unfortunately, you never know who you have to protect your child from, and there are billions of strangers on the Internet. When one of them harasses your child online, you might want to react in an emotional way. This is especially true if it hits a sensitive spot with your child. However, you should remain calm and tell your child to end the conversation. This will also set a standard of behaviour for your child if bullying occurs. Calmly leaving the chat is always preferable to continuing in a dangerous conversation or reacting in a way that provides the bully with even more ammunition to up the ante in further conversations.

Use Technology to Monitor Online Chat With Strangers

Because some bullying does come from strangers, setting up your child’s account so that she can only talk to known friends or friends of friends is beneficial. Facebook provides this as one security option, and Windows 8 even comes with parental controls for minors that include the following features:

  • Activity monitoring
  • Website filtering
  • Time limits
  • Restricted access to adult content in the Windows Store
  • Control of apps installed on the computer

Windows isn’t the only platform to offer tools like these, either. Amazon’s Kindle Fire and even the Android operating system offer similar profiles for children to limit their time and exposure to certain content. Activity monitoring is especially helpful for parents because you can see what websites your children are visiting and, if the tools support it, even what they’re typing to others. Security software companies such as Kaspersky also offer similar tools with their software bundles.

There’s no doubt that parents have to take an active role to ensure that the children aren’t engaging in potentially dangerous activities or behaviour that will make them the targets of bullies online. These tools allow you to monitor, but you can also check your child’s history and keep track of her passwords to make sure she’s only engaging in appropriate and safe behaviour online. Furthermore, keeping the family computer or tablet in a central location is one method that parents use to encourage children to follow the rules. When your child knows that you can see what she’s doing, she’s that much less likely to do things that you’ve outlined as against the rules or dangerous.

What Not to Share

Aside from sticking to websites that are closely monitored and intended for minors rather than random chat rooms like Omegle, you should advise your children never to reveal these types of identifying and personal information:

  • Full name
  • Address
  • School name
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • Photos depicting the home and address
  • Credit/debit card numbers
  • Social Security numbers
  • Passwords

Although some of these items are common sense to keep secret, you might not realize that a combination of information such as the local weather and whether there was a teacher in-service can lead child predators right to you with a little research. And predators are as much a concern when it comes to your child’s Internet safety as bullying.

Furthermore, the more personal information that a child releases, the more opportunities a bully have to find a sensitive issue. Remember Rebecca Sedgwick, the teen who killed herself after a particularly hurtful run-in with cyberbullying. Classmates took to the Internet in an attempt to make fun of Rebecca. Two girls pretended to be a boy who was romantically interested in the teenager. After realizing she had become their dupe, Rebecca jumped to her own death.

Sensitive information should never be used in screen names, either, and passwords shouldn’t be based on things that your child might discuss. For example, a pet’s name is often used as a password, but if your daughter talks about Fido, a cyber bully might gain access to your daughter’s account and pose as her to continue bullying on another level.

When Bullying Occurs in Stranger Chat

If your child is on the path to making a new friend via Facebook or chatting with a stranger via random chat rooms, things can quickly turn south. At the point when bullying has already occurred and blocking isn’t effective, you may consider reaching out to the authorities. However, there is often another option, which involves using your Internet Service Provider and, if you know it, the ISP of the bully. ISPS track all Internet activity, and police can request those records to locate and take legal action against bullies if their actions are illegal.

However, there are a few things to remember. While cyber harassment laws are more stringent when children are involved, there is still a gap between law enforcement or jurisdiction and technology. High-profile cases like those of Rebecca Sedgwick are quickly closing the gap, but you might not be able to seek the type of just that you’d like. Because of this, it’s important to focus on preventing cyberbullying that can occur during online chats with strangers rather than simply seeking justice after the fact.

The Known Bully

While bullying often occurs when talking with strangers online, this isn’t always the case. As in the case of Rebecca Sedgwick, bullies might be people that children and parents already know because they attend the same school or run in the same social circle. When this is the case, parents like you often have more options when it comes to putting an end to bullying.

In many cases, directly blocking the bully will prevent further bullying from that person. Of course, this may not be appropriate in all cases. For example, if the bully is someone your child goes to school with and has to work with on a project, then blocking isn’t an effective solution, and you should work with the school and the student’s parents to remedy the problem.

Most schools have their own systems created to help deal with bullying, which unfortunately doesn’t stop as soon as the bell rings. Parents should not be afraid to contact the appropriate authority at school — typically a counsellor — if bullying has reached the point of causing physical or emotional harm. However, some schools may attempt to sweep the issue under the rug and bullying may continue. If you worry for the well-being of your child or her school’s attempts to shame or punish her for being a victim, do not be afraid to escalate the issue to the school board or to the police if bullying is consistent or reaches criminal levels such as stealing or damaging of physical property or, even worse, physical assault.

How to Safely Engage in Stranger Chat

While talking to a stranger can be dangerous, it can also be rewarding. Your child can meet someone from a different culture or her new best friend. Chatting should remain friendly but not overly familiar. Limit the amount of time that your child spends online and the amount of time that she spends talking with any one person. Tell her to immediately leave conversations if they become uncomfortable or mean and to report those conversations to you. Encourage your child only to have conversations that she would be willing to report to you and let her know that you do monitor her activity. Both of these will keep her safe online.