Talking about being safe online freaked out my kid

Updated Jul 20 2017
Guest post by Catherine
Laptop decal by IvyBee

My daughter just turned 10, and for her birthday she asked for a subscription to a kid-based MMORPG. I got it for her, but told her we needed to have a conversation before setting it up. Last night we sat down for our conversation, and I think I totally blew it and now she seems traumatized.

We started with a basic conversation on how not everyone online is who they seem, and that she shouldn't give out personal information. I kept it light, like "In your game you're a wizard with purple skin, and we know you're not really a wizard and you have peach skin, so the person you meet who says they're an 11-year-old boy with a mohawk could really be an eight-year-old girl with a ponytail," etc. Through the course of our conversation, she asked why safety is an issue online, and I let her know, in generic terms, that sometimes people use online personas to manipulate or bully or hurt other people, and that sometimes it can spill over into offline life.

My kiddo is pretty trusting and upbeat, and perhaps I'm not as articulate as I had hoped, because she seemed to not quite grasp what I was telling her: "Mommy, that won't really happen. There must only be like one or two people in the whole world that would try to pretend they're someone else online to hurt a kid."

I ended up telling my daughter (without specifics) that it happens more often than she might expect, and people who may do bad things don't necessarily look like criminal masterminds or creepy strangers. I obviously really went wrong somewhere, and I don't know where. I was trying to help keep her safe and now she's traumatized.

Can I do damage control while still standing by my previous statements?

  1. I don't think you did anything wrong. I still remember when my parents sat down with me and had the "never ever go home with anyone you don't know" talk. We even created a family password that I remember to this day in case someone we didn't recognize needed to pick us up. It was scary. It kind of still is, when you think about it. The idea that there are bad people lurking around waiting to hurt you and you don't know who those people are or when they're going to strike. It's just as adults we're used to it, and as little kids someone else is always taking care of you. It's that in-betweenness that's hard. Think about how you felt the first time you stayed in your first apartment alone.

    I think some of the fear will wear off with time. Encourage her to be online and to play. It seems as though the "safety" message really sunk in, so I'd let it go for a bit and just reinforce the idea that 99% of the time the world is a fun and safe place. You could certainly bring up her fears, though. Something like "you seemed really freaked out after our conversation the other day. Do you want to talk about it?" Don't beat yourself up; you were trying to keep your daughter safe. Sometimes we just don't know how things are going to land on our kids. I'm sure she'll be fine – and actually even better off in the long run.

  2. Honestly- you didn't go wrong. The fact that there are creepy people out there (and far too many of them) who want to hurt children is traumatic. It basically collapses that innocence children have that that nice stranger who is smiling is just a nice stranger who is smiling. Unfortunately, to keep her safe, she needs to know. So she will come to deal with is just like kids do with all kinds of big and scary topics (death, divorce, the loss of a friend, that the easter bunny is a lie etc). You did the right thing. The wrong thing would be to tell her every man is secretly out to get her and she must be afraid at all time (this was how my mother approached it). So remember- it could have been worse!

  3. Is she freaked out about using the computer game now?
    Maybe suggest you and her play together for a while, modeling the right kind of behavior to have online and discussing at appropriate times if something comes up.

  4. I agree with the other comments that you didn't really do anything wrong. It's scary stuff for a kid. What I would emphasize though is how your daughter is in control of the scary stuff. She can keep herself totally safe just by following the simple rules of not giving out personal information and ignoring anyone who tries to bully her.

    An MMORPG is perfect (especially in contrast to social sites like Instagram and SnapChat), because she just has to remember to interact as that character. Her fellow players only need to know about her life as a purple wizard, not as a peach girl. It might help for her to make up a rich back story for her character, building on the one provided by the game. Not only does this make it more fun to role play her character, but it makes it easier to stick to the bit if you have more to go on.

    Teach her that if anyone tries to pressure her for information about her personal information IRL she can just brush them off. Whether it's with a laugh about how the mundane real world isn't worth talking about, or a curt "I don't want to tell you about that," she's in total control. And if anything ever upsets her, she can just log off and walk away. Yes, there are some bad people, but she can easily keep safe all by herself.

    I played a ton of MMO and MUDs as a kid, and had a lot of fun doing it. I hope your daughter will too!

  5. I think you did the right thing. In time she'll find the right perspective to put it in, and in the meantime she will be overly cautious which is NOT a bad thing when it comes to being ten years old, and being on the internet.

  6. When I was a kid I was a lot like your daughter, it seems – trusting, upbeat, and TOTALLY FREAKED OUT by suggestions that bad things could happen. My parents, knowing this, tried to provide information to me through more sources than just The Big Scary Talk. If your daughter likes reading, maybe find her a book about online safety? I know I absorb information better when I read it. TV shows or websites or games might also have information. Sometimes getting The Talk from another source 1) lends credibility to the issues, and 2) removes the emotional parent/child relationship from the equation and allows your kid to focus on facts. Also, you might check out Freerangekids.com – they have lots of ideas about how to help kids act responsibly and safely while still allowing them a good amount of freedom. Good luck!

    • I recommend The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers book.

      The part where Mamma Bear is making an apple pie taught my grammar-school self that appearances can be deceiving, and you cant always trust the good-looking apples (and you can't assume lumpy apples are all bad).

      If I remember it correctly, Sister Bear starts out super friendly, then develops stranger fear, then overcomes this to become friendly but stranger-aware.

  7. I agree with the others- I don't think you did it wrong, the internet can be a scary place and your kid should be well equipped! I was born in the late 80s, so the internet and I grew up together, and I can tell you by the time I was 13 some people had said some really inappropriate things to me online- but because my parents had prepped me for it, I knew to leave the chatroom, game, etc. as soon as someone said anything not PG rated. If you don't warn her about weirdos and pervs, she'll find out about them from the weirdos and pervs, and that's is definitely way worse than mom freaking her out a bit about safety!

    • As a teenager (I was born in the early 80s) I always felt like the internet was really a very safe place because no one on the internet could actually hurt me as long I didn't give them information about how to find me and I always had the option to leave any interaction at any time and for any reason.

      Encountering a dangerous person in real life is potentially life threatening. Encountering a dangerous person online is, at worst, uncomfortable and upsetting, as long as you don't give them any way to find you in real life.

      Of course, the modern internet is much less anonymous than the internet of my adolescence because everyone and their dog is online now, everything wants to connect with your Facebook or Google account and we are constantly being told that someone is watching and recording everything we do, so that feels less true to me now, but some of it still holds true.

      I'd still feel safer having my future!kid surfing the seediest back allies of the internet than riding a suburban bus alone.

      • It's true that "real" people are more dangerous than mysterious online profiles, but online safety isn't just about being safe from predators. I teach computer education to 6th-8th graders, and I can tell you that cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, and the usual "keyboard courage" that kids encounter can be very damaging, frightening, and traumatizing, and is far more real to them than the threat of "real life" criminals.

        And honestly, I think that's the conversation we need to be having, even more than "Don't give your personal info to strangers." Kids KNOW not to do that. But they don't necessarily know how to deal with their peers who use the internet as an opportunity to be total assholes, and they need to learn about that before it's even an issue.

  8. I work in the tech field- in web-based software development, specifically- and I have a couple things to add to the conversation.

    1) Use fake names and information when possible. Online safety is very tenuous. If you give out any information online (even just signing up for a site), it's available to hackers. Passwords should be secure!

    2) Never click on links (especially ones that others give to you) unless you know EXACTLY where they go! People can collect information through a simple mouse click.

    3) Bullying and cyber-stalking should be discussed, and a plan made to deal with it for when it happens. People are anonymous online, and sometimes that leads to cruelty.

    I think that covering these subjects in an age-appropriate way is vital to the well-being of kids. For adults, I recommend the book "The Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy" by Violet Blue. It's an excellent resource for women and men.

  9. I think the suggestion to ask her how she's feeling about your talk is a good idea. She may not be as freaked out as you think and if she is, you can reiterate that most people aren't bad and she may or may not encounter any bad people, but since there's no way to tell who someone is and bad people do exist, that being careful will protect her. (I don't love the term "bad people", but am struggling to come up with something better.) Frame it in a more pro-active way of what she can do to stay safe, not focusing on how everyone is a potential threat (they are, but I suspect that is the part that freaked her out, so the key is to help her know what power she has to stay safe.)

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