Who's Really Behind the Avatar?
The online environment can be complex and challenging, but particularly for our tamariki and rangatahi when someone can present themselves as ‘anyone’ online. Anjie Webster, Netsafe’s Education Advisor shares her thoughts in response to the recent Netsafe media release.
I recently became an ‘online gamer’. To be frank it was quite a surprise to my family, and myself when I finally said “yes” after saying “not now”, for many years. I’d be busy either with school-related work or focusing on my post-grad study and thesis in my evenings and weekends.
Finally, I decided it was time to ‘give it a go’. Within 20 minutes of downloading the game, I found myself online with my family, revelling in a whole new experience and ‘landscape’. However, with no innate keyboard gaming skills, no (PC) gaming knowledge, I was reliant on my family and their patience to teach me everything I needed to ‘survive’ (okay, I did look up info and cheats online).
What I’ve learned and what I enjoy is a story for another blog, however, I have to say my chosen avatar looks amazing! Long dreds and bandana, strong athletic form, camo gear, and an array of tools and defence equipment. It’s a far cry from what I really look like, and who I really am, but online I can be anyone. This is both exciting and dangerous.
In today’s online landscape, someone can be anyone, and this is highly problematic when intentions become, or are harmful or illegal. My role as an Education Advisor with Netsafe has involved cases in which children and young people have been negatively impacted by risky or harmful contact with ‘unknown others’ online. Those online ‘friends’ turned out to be most different than the young person had been led to believe, and the spill-over from some incidents of grooming or (s)extortion has been considerable and negative for those involved.
In the Global Kids Online Netsafe media report (Dec 2019) 40% of NZ children and young people who participated (n. 2000) reported they have had contact with someone online that they did not know offline. And, ten percent have met up offline with someone they met online.
This finding is noteworthy on many levels and it’s worth unpacking. Firstly though, it’s important to acknowledge that some or many of these interactions may have been positive, safe, and meaningful. They may have involved family oversight, or, young people managing themselves in mature, considered and safe ways. Many may understand and have strategies around potential risks, including checking and verifying the credibility of the ‘new’ person.
However, there’s the possibility that some of these interactions carried potential risk and possible harm. We know many online games, social media, and app platforms including ‘dating’ or hook-up apps, provide functions with easy access to connect through private messaging, live chat, and video etc. These spaces are a common ‘seek and select’ area for groomers and others. Even some learning tools such as Google Hangouts can be used by those ‘unknown’ to us, as conduits for connecting to young people. All someone needs is an email or fake account to effectively project the identity they adopt, through photos, language, tone and ‘teen culture’ references – and they can be anyone they want to us to believe they are.
That so many young children are online in age-restricted, co-shared spaces with adults and older teens, and with considerable autonomy on smaller devices, adds to this concern.
We also know child exploitation unfortunately exists and is devastating. The Department of Internal Affairs has recently stated there are 220 open investigations into New Zealanders trading child sex abuse images, while ECPAT report 1 million attempts are made a month in NZ to access websites with child abuse imagery.
A groomer will often attempt to manipulate a child or young person to extract nudes and sexual content from them, and in some cases attempt to convince them into meeting offline for sexual purposes. In those cases that I know about, there’s been no ‘one type’ of child or young person who are more vulnerable. They are individual and varied in who, where, how, when, why it happened and include girls and boys as young as 9 year of age and up into the teen years. One thing in common was the availability and use of digital technology and online spaces, however, the technology is not the villain.
The ‘toolkit’ of a groomer often involves hiding behind an avatar or image of someone else, often weaving a psychological narrative. In a calculated approach, they often seek to make our young people feel singled out and special, while they (the groomer or extorter) parade themselves as something other than who they really are.
Common narratives include assuring the young person that while they may be ‘misunderstood’ and undervalued by those around them, the ‘new friend’ totally ‘gets’ them. They express how they ‘understand’ their target’s needs and difficulties, and usually ply them with carefully constructed compliments and possibly at times, real gifts. At a time when identity is developing, and young people need to feel their lives have purpose and meaning, that they are special and valued, vulnerability can be heightened, particularly in the tween and teen years.
Groomers may spend only a few days, or many weeks and months working on a particular target. They’re often skilled and patient in their tactics, so it’s essential that we help equip our children and young people with ‘toolkits’ of their own. This can be done through building types of social skills, digital and media literacies and, developing intuitive and insightful habits to employ online when approached by unknown others.
Children need to be able to internalise an innate ‘pause and check button’ when unknown others approach online and want to engage. When someone they don’t know begins to ask personal questions, or a private message or invite is sent, or unsolicited compliments are expressed, we want our children to show caution. We want them to confidently come to an adult to help to check credibility in the first instance, before responding.
It would be great if we talked about those gut-feeling responses that can be the earliest warning signal that something might not be what we think it is. That sense of unease, a squirmy yukky feeling in the tummy when things don’t feel right or, something is confusing or upsetting us online. This response, whatever makes us feel wary and uncertain, needs to be encouraged and honed through talking about how and why it might be triggered.
This is also the beginning of developing digital and media literacies where we can put a filter on what we see, who we engage with, and manage contexts with greater safety and resilience when we know that someone can be ‘anyone’ online.
We can all participate in different ways to help our children and young people develop the social, emotional and cognitive capabilities they need to confidently navigate healthy friendships and relationships online. We need to let them know there are other supports (school, Netsafe, other family members, etc) and intentionally build resilient habits through learning opportunities wherever they emerge.
Importantly, we need to lean in alongside our tamariki and rangatahi, and talk to them about how they’ve navigated, managed and controlled contexts online that they’ve found scary, risky or potentially harmful. Asking them what has worked and what’s needed is a powerful beginning.