Do you know what Zoom-bombing is? Neither did I—until about 2 minutes ago. My 15-year-old cousin was Zoom chatting with her high school basketball teammates. It was all hoops and happiness until—boom!—they were hacked by an unknown predator and his not-so-private parts.
Obviously, the girls were pretty shocked by what they’d been exposed to. They also were prepared to do the right thing: They immediately reported the event to a trusted adult, just as they were taught to do.
Thanks to COVID-19, homes across the country have been made over into prep schools and virtual arcades. Kids are online more than ever—e-learning, Zooming, gaming and crawling social media—and this increase means it has never been more important to talk to them about internet safety and how to protect themselves from online predators and sexual abuse.
Also thanks to COVID-19: Kids are, literally, a captive audience. This captivity—and the related increase in family time—is a boon to parents who are looking for natural opportunities to ease into a personal safety chat, says Dr. Tia Kim, vice president of education, research and impact for the Committee for Children.
“I think we have so much family time right now,” Kim says. “At first, it was a lot of juggling work and the school load, but I [then I] recognised the silver lining in the ability to sit down and have family dinners. These are a great opportunity to have some good conversations.”
Have a “Hot Chocolate Talk”
The Hot Chocolate Talk is a campaign designed by the Committee for Children to help families start the conversation about child sexual abuse. As part of the campaign, the organisation offers a free how-to-guide that takes the guesswork—and possibly some of the awkwardness—out of the conversation for parents. You are given precise words to use, broken down by age group, and a strategy for delivering them in a comfortable setting and alongside a cosy treat.
“We worked with researchers and focus groups of parents, and what came up as a theme when talking about personal safety and sexual abuse was that parents knew it was important, but didn’t know how to have the conversation,” Kim says.
While a warm chocolaty drink is always welcomed, the point is to focus on creating the right environment for having the conversation. These chats should be as open, honest and comfortable as possible.
“We wanted to note that imagery,” Kim says. “To be relaxed and be in a comfortable setting. It’s a much harder conversation for the adults than it is for the kids.”
Kim recommends looking for ways to weave the conversation into a natural setting like bedtime, prior to a paediatrician visit or while your child is on the computer.
“When my kids were younger, during potty training and bath time was a natural time to talk about what’s private and what’s appropriate,” Kim says. “My older son does a lot of online gaming now. I use these times to remind him not give out personal information.”
Personal safety conversations can begin early and should happen often.
“When kids can naturally begin naming body parts, I think that’s a perfect segue to start having those conversations and setting rules,” she says.
Talking tips by age group
The Committee for Children offers downloadable how-to guides for talking about sexual abuse with a wide range of kids, from toddlers to teenagers:
Keep the conversations short and simple. Focus on personal safety rules, the correct names of body parts and how to refuse unwanted touches.
Be more specific with your personal safety rules and remind your child of the rules with regularity.
Review family safety rules and go into additional detail about privacy, different types of touches and how to recognise behaviour that makes them uncomfortable.
Many of the same safety rules apply to older kids but might need to be framed in a way that is more open-ended. Rather than giving a one-sided talk about safe choices that your child may tune out, focus on developing an open, honest and ongoing dialogue.
Establishing clear in-person and online safety rules is a good idea, both to provide structure for kids and to aid aid parents in monitoring what their kids are encountering, Kim says.
“In our house, the rule with online gaming is you can’t play with anyone you don’t know,” she says. “Everything has to be on speaker. That just helps us, but other people have different rules.”
If you are in the process of creating your family’s safety rules—or simply retooling your existing ones—Kim recommends incorporating the 3 “R’s” of safety:
Recognise behaviour that is inappropriate
Refuse the behaviour
Report the behaviour
“[Establish that] online, it’s not ok for someone to ask for your personal information, or it’s not ok to send or receive pictures of private body parts,” Kim says. “[Make it clear] you can say no to unwanted ‘touches’ that occur in person or online.”
While these conversations might be uncomfortable at the start, the goal is to make them less so by tackling them early and continually reinforcing the message. And with your kids both more online and more in-home than ever, now is the time to make having them a priority.