Is your teen playing with fire online?
Could your teen be teasing or bullying on the internet? A psychologist looks at why this could happen.

There are always stories of innocent teenagers who are lured and victimised on the internet. But what do you do when your child is the instigator, the one who is victimising others?

In some cases, teen girls not only fake their real identities online, but they make up entirely fictional profiles to lure older men. Their idea is usually never to actually meet the man, but rather, they get a thrill from leading him on. What starts out as harmless fun can get really ugly very quickly.

Michael (name changed) is a 29-year-old man in Cape Town who was fooled by a young girl on a social network. She was only 16 years old but made him believe she was 25 and even sent him fake pictures. Over the course of a year she had managed to not only have him ‘fall in love’ with her, but he also gave up his career and home to move to Johannesburg to be with her. When he arrived and wanted to meet her in person she stopped all communication.  He later found out her true age and his words to her were: ‘If I ever find you I will kill you.’ 

Is your child is playing these sort of games? 

If you see a combination of these signs and behaviours, it may be time for a serious talk on internet safety.

  • Constantly using their phone or computer, often giggling or appearing embarrassed.
  • Using mature language and phrases in their day-to-day conversation that is different to how they usually speak.
  • Sudden burst of confidence.
  • Secretive behaviour and keeping herself locked in her room for extended periods of time.
  • The books she reads and movies she watches may also be an indication - very often young girls will try pick up ‘tips’ from romance novels and pornography.
  • School performance is often affected.
  • Take note of your child's friends. Are many of them older? As her confidence grows, many girls mistakenly believe they really are more mature than they are and are attracted to older friends.

Why is she doing it?

  • She may not be very pretty or popular at school and this is a very easy way to get attention. She can pretend to be the kind of girl she wishes she was.
  • They usually have a low self-esteem and are seeking approval.
  • Most often these are girls who long for a boyfriend but don't have one. 
  • Some teens pretend to be far more confident than they truly are, and often when the chats get sexual they use it as a way to explore this issue and satisfy their curiosity.
  • Sadly, some teens simply do it as a joke. They laugh with their friends about how they ‘tricked’ someone and share (and compare) messages. 

What can you do?

  • She may roll her eyes as you do so, but educate your teen about the dangers online. One survey on Teen Internet Usage showed that teens whose parents have talked to them about internet safety are more concerned about the risks of sharing personal information online than teenagers whose parents were less involved.  65% of teenagers who were not informed shared personal details, compared with 48% for those who were educated.
  • Have an open relationship and be sure your child knows they can come to you if they get in trouble without being afraid of what you will do. Teens know how to hide their behaviour and will continue to do so if they feel they can't trust you. A reported 63% of teens are able to completely hide their online activity from their parents.
  • Set rules and limits about online activity and let your child know that safety is more important than their privacy. In other words, if they have MXit on their phones you need to be able to view their friends and chats at any time (with no advance warning), especially if you are seeing signs indicating a problem.
  • Know how the internet, MXit and other social networks work yourself. Learn the tricks of finding deleted histories and acquaint yourself with online lingo. For example, ‘POS’ is a common acronym for ‘Parent Over Shoulder’. 
  • Finally, remember that it is better to have your child irritated with you for being ‘over-protective’ than to keep the peace and allow your teen to play with fire.

Are teens mature enough to handle their online activity?

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