Keeping Kids Safe from Strangers in a New Age

In today's digital world, how can parents keep kids safe? Get tips on how to teach kids about stranger danger. Plus, get stranger danger facts and tips.

Google “stranger danger,” and you’ll see a hilariously cheesy public service video of different types of creepy “strangers” trying to entice kids into their clutches.

While the message and examples may seem dated, the tricks perpetrators use to lure kids (finding a lost dog, pretending they’re a friend of a parent, etc.) could still be employed. But nowadays there are even more ways that someone could prey on your children. And today, the advice to kids goes way beyond “don’t talk to strangers.”

Instead, parents need to help kids understand what to do in potentially dangerous situations – whether that person is a stranger on the street, someone they know or even a “friend” they met online.

Rethinking strangers

“We go through a whole list of what a stranger can look like,” says registered nurse Donna Bucciarelli. During safety sessions given to kids either at the center’s offices or in schools, she’ll ask, “Is it someone heavy? Is it someone thin? Is it someone tall?” She goes through a variety of descriptions to reinforce to kids a stranger can look like anyone. And she also lets kids know, “Not every stranger is bad. We just can’t tell.” So Bucciarelli’s message is whenever you don’t feel safe, get out of the situation and go and tell a trusted adult about what happened. “It’s a fine line you walk, especially with young kids. You don’t want them to be totally afraid, but we want them to have the wherewithal to get somewhere safe and to talk to someone.”

Organizations like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children are finding that the greater risk posed to children when it comes to abduction is not the stereotypical case of a child being approached by someone they don’t know – but rather, someone they do know. “The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children does not support the ‘stranger danger’ message,” explains Nancy McBride, NCMEC’s national safety director. “The ‘stranger danger’ myth seems to evoke for both adults and kids this image of some scary guy hiding behind a tree trying to grab a child, but the real danger is some person your kids know.”

That’s not to say that you throw out the idea of instructing kids about the dangers of strangers altogether, but that you make sure to talk to you kids about how to get out of any situation where they feel unsafe, whether it’s someone they know or not.

‘What if?’ is key

McBride says you should begin to talk to your kids about child safety precautions as soon as they start talking, so you can build a foundation of understanding and awareness.

“You should talk to kids about safety based on their development and, of course, do so in a calm, reassuring manner,” she says.

Talking about and even role-playing potentially dangerous scenarios can help kids understand what to do if they feel threatened. But child safety experts caution that kids can be very literal. McBride recalls a mother who shared a startling story with her: The mom explained she’d asked her young son what he’d do if a stranger approached him and asked him to help find a missing puppy. She was happy to hear her son respond, “I wouldn’t help him, Mom.” Then she asked, “What about a kitten?” Her son answered along the lines of,  “Well, I’d help him since kittens are smaller than puppies, so that’s OK.”

On a regular basis, parents can ask kids, “What would you do if … ” and then go through scenarios, such as if someone asked your child to get into the car with them or otherwise get him or her alone and away from others. “Often it’s something that your child may want, like a getting into a warm car on a cold day or getting a drink on a hot day,” explains Bucciarelli. “For adults listening to one of our sessions, they just want to poke their eyes out because it’s so repetitive. But for kids, you need to put that seed into their minds that it could be any of those things and more.”

And don’t just leave it at, “Say no.” Talk through the situation with your child. For example, if you’re dropping your child off at soccer practice, ask her, “What would you do if someone offered to give you a ride home?” After she answers, “I’d say no,” ask her what she’d do next. Does she know to run the other way and tell a trusted adult? Even if it’s someone she knows, she should understand that if you haven’t approved letting that person take her home, she shouldn’t go. Parents also need to let kids know that strangers can sometimes be the source for help. Teach them to recognize who they might be able to run to, such as a police officer or someone with a tag on at a store that identifies him or her as an employee. Each situation is a little different, which is why talking through your child’s options is key.

McBride encourages parents to make these conversations fun for children rather than something they dread. “Go to the mall and talk about different scenarios and go through some ‘what ifs’ – and then grab some pizza.” Your children are more likely to listen to the message – and remember it later – if it’s something they enjoyed doing with you.

 

If your child does encounter an unsafe situation, the next step for a parent is to contact the police department. “One of the things that is unfortunate is that sometimes there’s a delay in calling us,” says Capt. Mike Johnson, a county sheriff’s officer and substation commander for the City of Rochester Hills. “Some may think it’s not quite a big enough issue and they send us an email or a fax later. But the sooner we know about it, the sooner we can go out and try to catch the person in the area. My message to parents is please call us. That’s what we’re here for.”

Cyber strangers

Understanding the danger of a situation may be easier for a child when it’s someone on the street in comparison to someone they might “meet” online. According to NCMEC, state and local enforcement agencies reported an alarming 230 percent increase of documented complaints of online enticement of children from 2004 to 2008.

“We get about one or two calls a week and those are just the ones that are reported, so the actual numbers are probably higher,” says detective Sgt. Darren Ofiara, who worked in the Oakland County Computer Crime Unit until 2016.

A study by NCMEC found that 15 percent of cell phone-owning teens ages 12 to 17 say they have received sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude images of someone they know via text, and 1 in 25 children ages 10 to 17 received an online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make offline contact.

Ofiara describes a typical scenario: In on online interactive community, such as gaming, a child begins playing with an unknown person. That person strikes up conversations with the child. Over time, the person convinces the child to create a separate account where they can talk online. This person then asks the child to send inappropriate pictures of himself or herself to the person. After the person receives the picture, he threatens the child with going to his or her parents or school officials if he or she doesn’t keep sending more pictures.

“Usually, the teen won’t initially tell a parent what’s going on, but will tell a friend,” Ofiara says. “That friend then convinces the teen to tell parents and then the parents contact us.” He notes that they’re finding the problem, which they call sextortion, is happening to children in a range of ages: “Right now, the victims are from age 9 through 17.”

Ofiara encourages parents to make sure that computers are kept in open areas in the home, not in children’s rooms. He also suggests parents come up with rules for using smartphones. For example, parents can give smartphones a bedtime, say 9 p.m., and keep them in their room vs. the kids’ bedrooms. Monitoring programs are available for both computers and smartphones. But Ofiara cautions that even if parents have their kids’ passwords, that’s only for the accounts parents know about. “I always advocate talking to kids as much as humanly possible (about potential dangers).”

Fortunately, parents aren’t alone. Police and other child safety experts are active in schools and the community trying to teach kids about how to identify potential dangers, too. Johnson notes that in Rochester Hills, there are school liaison officers in all three high schools along with officers in the middle schools; there’s a presence in the area elementary schools, too.

“We certainly make educating our kids a big priority,” he says.

What’s your family code word?

Child safety experts recommend you come up with a family code word that can be used in a variety of situations. The word should be something you might already be using in casual conversation, but that you and your child will remember when you need it. For example, maybe your word or phrase is “clean the attic” or “sticky pineapples.” Review with your child the circumstances where the code word may come in handy.

Let’s say your child is over at a friend’s house and feels uncomfortable and wants to come home. She can call you and use the code word, so she can discretely get out of the situation. Or, something prevents you from picking up your child from school/sports practice. You ask a friend that’s not very familiar to your child to go get him. You tell your friend the code word to say to your child, so he knows it’s OK to go.

Note: Remind your child the code word is for your family to use – and it should be kept secret.

Sex offenders in the neighborhood

One tool available for parents to know more about potentially dangerous individuals in their neighborhoods is the sex offender registry. Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, an online sex offender registry was created so parents can check for any sex offenders located in their area. Type in your home or other address on the NSOPW website to see offenders listed within a specified area. The site includes pictures and details about each sex offender.

While this site and other online resources for tracking sex offenders can be helpful, they can give parents a false sense of security. “A lot of these crimes go unprosecuted,” says 1st Lt. Gabriel Covey. “Not all of the (sexual exploitation of children) crimes are reported. I would caution someone that just because you don’t find any predators or convicted sex offenders listed in your area doesn’t mean there aren’t any.” He notes that some sex offenders move frequently and may not register. His solution is educating children about how to avoid potentially dangerous situations and what to do if they feel unsafe. Another tip from Covey: “You can always stop into your local police department and ask if there are any issues in your neighborhood.”

Besides online searches, you can download the McGruff Mobile app on iTunes or for Android, named after the National Crime Prevention Council’s McGruff the Crime Dog. The app, which was created in partnership with AlertID, gives you public safety alerts about potential concerns in your neighborhood. Worried about your child going missing? Should something that horrific happen, make sure you follow this tips on what to do.

Did you find the advice in this article interesting or helpful? Have any personal stories or experiences to share? Comment with your thoughts below.

This post was originally published in 2014 and is updated regularly. 

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