How Could Your Teen Become a Target Online?

Tough to be a Teen

Teenagers can be difficult. Their moodiness and ability to go from screaming to the silent treatment can be a roller coaster for the rest of the family. But rather than focus on how it makes YOU feel, take a moment and consider what they are going through that manifests in those actions. Teens are at the cusp of adulthood. Bodies are changing. Feelings are like listening to radio on high volume. Friendships evolve at alarming rates and can change in a flash. They may feel as though everything is beyond their control. That’s when they begin to look for help.

Searching Online

Whether we need the latest news, a definition of a word or the answer to a particularly difficult question, our first stop is the Internet. We fire up our favorite browser, navigate to our desired search engine, type in our question or some keywords, and click search. Within seconds, we have millions of results at our fingertips. Definitions, encyclopedia entries, news items, government sponsored websites, and so much more.

Seeking Help

Our teens are conditioned to use the Internet to find answers to their questions. In school, they complete most of their research for projects or papers online. Teachers use Internet examples in classes with smartboards or other advanced technology. Homework is assigned from Internet websites. When faced with questions or issues in their personal lives, our teens often turn first to the web rather than to an adult. This can be both a blessing and a curse.

The Blessing

A teen typing in “acne”, for example, will find a myriad of resources assuring them that not only is this normal for their age, but that it will likely pass. It will also prompt them to seek either over-the-counter or medical treatment. Teens may also seek help for more sensitive emotional issues such as eating disorders, PTSD, cutting, depression, or anxiety. Many sites will offer advice, and the best ones will prompt them to talk to a trusted adult or doctor. They may find descriptions of symptoms that match their own with suggestions for places to find help. They may even connect with others with similar problems for support.

The Curse

Unfortunately, the answers found online are not always productive and in a teen’s best interest. There are many forums that provide “safe” places for teens with emotional issues to share their feelings. Despite the posted forum rules about it being a place for teens to share and not a place to inappropriately target teens, it happens anyway.

Mean Teens

Despite forums declarations of being safe, many of them are not. While you may expect other teens to relate and provide support, it doesn’t always happen. In researching this article, several forums and threads were reviewed. It was astonishing how many times heartfelt posts about very difficult feelings were met with derision and insults and even name-calling. It was cyber-bullying. It had to be horrific for the teen who bared their soul in a cry for help to read replies telling them they were weak and even being called vulgar names.

The Helplessness of Chats

Forums aren’t the only place teens look to connect with others. There are many chatrooms for teens. In one such room, the following chat was encountered (the names have been changed but content is quoted):

Deadfornow: what’s the point

Singtome: its not worth it

Deadfornow: life isn’t worth it

Deadfornow: pain and suffering isn’t worth it

Singtome: that’s the thing though… idk what the point is

Singtome: but the happy moments in life are

Deadfornow: I don’t get happy moments

Deadfornow: I have to go

Deadfornow: bye

Singtome: please don’t do anything

Singtome: “Crying”

Imagine the emotions Singtome is going through at the end of the chat. This was posted in a chat room for “depressed, suicidal, and self-harming teens to provide friendship and emotional support to each other”.

Restricted Content is Unrestricted

You may believe that your teen is safe from online predators with your current account settings. You may be wrong. Predators not only create false profiles on forums and chatrooms, they provide ways for your teen to access sites that are restricted. A search for ways to access restricted sites yielded easy to use instructions to “find lots of links to different dating start meet teen lolitas… with VIP treatment and special gifts”. This is NOT where you want your teen to end up when seeking advice on dating or relationships. This is a predator’s paradise.

Predatory Behavior

A troubled teen is a prime target for a predator because they can pose as a sympathetic peer, gain trust, and then exploit the relationship. Because the teen is dealing with emotional issues, they may trust this person more than they should and provide information that should not be shared, such as real name, address, or more. This is a real risk and should be taken very seriously.

The Big Solution

While there are risks, the Internet is not all bad. The key to making sure your teen is safe is to communicate with them. When you see signs of distress, try to talk with them. Give them a safe environment to share feelings. Do not judge. Simply listen and validate the feelings. The feelings are very real, even if you do not agree with them. Then use the Internet together to find safe sites. Stick to government sites, trusted medical sites, or other sites that are regulated. By opening the avenues of communication, you and your teen can safely seek help together.