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The New Era of Stranger Danger

It was a brisk fall night, perfect for “Thursday Night Lights,” a middle school football game. On rows of metal bleachers, I had a birds-eye view of some interesting social scenarios playing out. A few feet from me, three young girls giggled as a tall boy approached. I later found out the girls were in middle school, while this boy was clearly in high school, evidenced by his surfacing facial hair, mature physique, and the high school team jacket he wore. I overheard him asking one girl in particular if he could get her “snap.” He didn’t ask her name, yet by their collective body language, it appeared they didn’t know each other at all. Less than a second later, two of the girl’s phones were out, and he was taking pics of their snapcodes with his phone. (In case you don’t know, a snapcode looks like this:) 

I was at the scene of the crime.

“Don’t do it!” I said loud enough for the entire group to hear me. The girls looked over to me and laughed nervously. I made eye contact with one of them. I shook my head and mouthed the plea again, Don’t do it.

The teenage boy smirked and loudly began his defense, in full flirtatious swagger.  “I’m a nice boy! I used to go to their school.” My eyes were now locked with his. “Do you know them?” Which he answered by smiling even bigger and saying, “Well…..”

As quickly as he appeared, he was gone… back to his group of dudes several rows up. The girls huddled around their phones and whispered.

I felt a wave of conflict come over me. I should have minded my own business. I probably embarrassed them. But also, They look really young. What if they’re not aware of the dangers these casual connections can bring?

After a few minutes of deliberation (and prayer), I decided to introduce myself to them and apologize if I embarrassed them. They seemed a bit shell-shocked having a random adult approach them, but each of them shook my hand and introduced themselves back. They confirmed they were in middle school, that they did not know that boy or his friends at all. I explained that I work with schools and parents to help protect kids and teens online, which is why I butted into their exchange with Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome. I let them know that connecting with a teenage guy you don’t really know, is still connecting to a stranger… even if he’s cute. They have no idea how safe or dangerous he may be, but they’ve given him (and potentially his friends), access to their lives, including where they go to school and other personal information.

I asked them if they would know what to do if one of their contacts on Snapchat started pressuring them to do something dangerous, like send sexual pictures. Or sneak out of the house to meet up. Or take part in something illegal. One of the girls nervously shook her head. I had too many scary news stories in my mind, and I didn’t want to traumatize them or completely shut them down from listening to my already-too-long pep talk. I kept the scary stories to myself.

I ended by encouraging them to think about it and thanking them for listening. I went back to my seat, hoping that my words might ring in their ears the next time something similar happens. Maybe?

This is the new era of stranger danger.

As I think back on this incident, I realize that teenagers often have a skewed understanding of who a stranger is these days. When you can have direct access to almost anyone online, including celebrities, it seems like you do (at least in a sense) know them. But as the dad in the documentary “Connect” wisely stated, they’re “strangers who’ve been identified,” not friends. In the social media world, the lines have become very blurry.

I certainly remember flirting with guys I didn’t know as a teenager. Maybe we met at a movie, or at the beach, talking for just a few minutes. But I would literally never see them or hear from them again. It was the safety of knowing our interaction was temporary and isolated that gave me the courage to even engage. But today, these brief encounters can turn into long-term, and potentially dangerous, online connections.

And while I don’t want to live in a paranoid frame of mind, thinking that every stranger is a potential threat, I also still see the need to exercise wisdom and caution in connecting with people I don’t actually know. I have my own safety and the safety of my family in mind when using this caution.

I remember when one of my sons was young and had randomly received several bee stings in one summer. He was really anxious about going to a certain park where one of them had occurred. I remember telling him, “We don’t have to be afraid, but we can use wisdom.” So we talked about not climbing into the hollowed out spaces on the playground equipment without making sure the beehives had been removed. Or staying close to mom, since I would notice buzzing insects from further away. There were certain steps of caution that could help prevent these random threats, but as in much of life, we still couldn’t guarantee with 100% certainty that they would work. However, staying inside all summer out of fear… that was not an option.

I don’t want young people to live in fear. But I do hope they’ll use wisdom.

As parents, what do we need to learn so we can talk to our kids about cautious steps to take?

1. Understand how direct messaging works. Almost all social media accounts have direct messaging (DM) features where strangers can connect to your kids. Even if your teen has an Instagram account set to private, all another person needs is their username to be able to send them a message. A private account will receive a notification of the message, and the student will have to “accept” the message to be able to view it. (Also, automated monitoring of DMs through great third-party tech tools like Bark is still somewhat limited on iOS devices, because of Apple’s privacy protocols. Understand what you can monitor and what you can’t.)

2. Check your teen’s privacy settings. If your teen uses Snapchat, make sure they have their settings for “Who Can Contact Me” set to MY FRIENDS (and make sure they know not to allow people they don’t actually know into that “friend” category). A mom recently reached out to a group of tech-wise parents to find out how a creeper was messaging her daughter on Snapchat. The tech-wise parents let her know she may have her settings on EVERYONE for who can contact her… or perhaps the daughter had accepted a friend request from a dude she didn’t really know without remembering.

3. Realize that online solicitation of minors is occurring at alarming numbers. Sextortion is a real threat, and becoming a very organized enterprise (listen to this video from Pedimom). According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, 1 in 5 U.S. teenagers who regularly are online have experienced sexual solicitation, and of those, 77% were over the age of 14. That means the danger is not lessening as our kids get older and wiser. Social media connections are at the center of a teen’s vulnerability to solicitation online. (Also, take note of emerging apps like Facebook’s new “Lasso” app that is akin to TikTok –formerly Musicly– yet has NO private profile option. Musicly was once dubbed “a predator’s dream” and rightfully so. Even with privacy settings, these apps are a hotbed for solicitation. Parents, beware.)

This message is a frightening example from a real mom, about a teen who was being groomed by someone she thought was her “friend” online.

4. Teach your kids not to give away their contact information to (or accept friend requests from) anyone they don’t know. As a parent, you will need to provide accountability to make sure they are doing this… let them know you will periodically go through their phone/accounts and ask questions about contacts. (Accountability is crucial to training… if you only tell them to clean their room but you never check to see if they have, do you think they’re actually going to clean it?)

It’s clear through all of the research emerging that our teens are suffering through shallow over-connected lives on social media. They won’t automatically have the restraint to limit these connections, nor should we fault them for that. They are developmentally right where they should be — excited about meeting new people, growing in independence outside of their family dynamic. But we as parents have a role to play in helping them launch into life understanding what true connection really looks like, and setting boundaries to make restraint easier to achieve. This is training.

When it comes to the new era of stranger danger, we don’t need to be afraid. But we do need to use wisdom.


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