Talking to kids about scary chain emails

scared kid A few weeks ago, I had chance to talk with elementary school parents about internet safety. It was a great evening and a chance for me to discover what problems young kids were encountering in the digital world. One of the concerns that came up was scary chain emails. These chain emails usually start with a frightening story and end with “if you don’t send this to 5 friends, I will come to your house in the middle of the night and kill you with a butcher’s knife.” Quite a few parents shared how upset their child had become upon receiving such a threatening email.

At home, I asked my 3 kids about scary chain emails. Predictably, my tween and teen rolled their eyes. My eldest recalled at time in 5th grade when they all sent around these emails. They were excited to have their first email accounts but received so little email they started sending each other chain emails. It is easy to find examples of funny and scary chain emails online. Both of my older kids said these emails were not a big deal and most of the time they simply deleted them.

My youngest was not so dismissive. In fact, he was concerned and confused by how the stranger would have gotten his email address. He thought if the stranger knew his email address, they could also know where he lived. To him, these threats seemed within the realm of possibility. Honestly, I was little surprised by his reaction. Our conversation was a reminder that I still needed to talk to him more about evaluating digital content.

First off, we talked about how someone cannot find your home address through your email address. I reminded him how when we signed up for email. He only shared his name and birth date and this information is protected via his password. (I also slipped in a quick plug for choosing a strong, unique password). Most likely, this email either came from someone who guessed his email address or a friend forwarded the email. Either way, the original author does not have his home address and does not know where he lives.

Second, we discussed how these stories are not real. These chain emails have been floating around the internet for a long time. A great place to check for the origin of these stories is on Snopes investigates chain mails and other urban legends and provides reliable explanations. Here is an example of how to dissect one of these stories for a kid. Snopes not only investigates the different versions on the web but takes a part the story as well. A quick lesson in critical thinking.

Finally, kids should never forward these emails. Some of these emails may a contain a virus so you want to nip these in the bud before they can infect a computer. The best thing to do is just delete them so that no other kids will get scared or have nightmares. For more information on talking with kids about chain emails, check out the blog Media!Tech!Parenting! by Marti Weston which has a lot of information on protecting kids from email hoaxes, scams and viruses.

When Dating Crosses the Line from Attentive to Controlling

digital abuse signs

Today, teen dating spans the real world and the digital world. Teens may meet first in class or at a game then get to know one another through texting, following each other and sharing photos and posts online. Before mobile, teens had to sit by the phone waiting for their friend to call. Now, they can always be connected via texting and social networks. Unfortunately, teens may find themselves in a relationship where their partner uses this constant connection to control and abuse them.

MTV’s aThinLine Campaign has conducted a series of surveys exploring the pervasiveness of digital abuse among teens and young adults. When athinline asked teens about digital abuse, they found in almost all categories digital abuse is on the decline except for within a dating relationship. This was the only category that did not show improvement from 2011 to 2013. Nearly 40% of teens reported experiencing some type of digital dating abuse including:

  • Around 20% reported that their partner has checked up with them multiple times per day online or via mobile, and that their significant other had read their text messages without their permission.
  • Nearly 10% said their significant other has called them names, put them down, or said mean things to them on the Internet or on their cell phone or demanded to know the passwords to their email and Internet accounts.
  • Nearly 20% of young people say they felt pressured by their partner to respond to their phone calls, emails, texts, or instant messages.

This online dating abuse can take its toll on teens. A study by Michigan State University found girls, who had experienced non-physical abuse, were just as likely to experience the same negative outcomes as those who had experienced physical abuse. Both types of abuse lead to an increase in smoking, risk of depression, eating disorders and engaging in risky sexual behavior.

When a teen’s phone is constantly dinging, parents should check in. Online abuse is often harder to spot than physical abuse. Teens do text a lot but the important part is how they feel about these texts and messages. Parents should ask how often teens text or message their partner and generally what they are talking about. By listening to them, hopefully a parent can begin to see if this constant contact feels stressful and ascertain what happens if they do not respond right away to a text.

Healthy relationships are positive and safe both online and off. How they speak to one another should be respectful whether it is in the hallway or on Twitter. Relationships are built on mutual trust. Even within a relationship they are still individuals and deserve their privacy and independence. Teens should establish digital boundaries in their relationship. Friends should not demand passwords, require constant contact or insist on access to their phone. If needed, they should be able to take a break and turn off their phone.

When talking about dating, parents should talk about digital boundaries and reassure them that digital abuse is never their fault. Online abuses could be signs of a larger problem. If a teen is not feeling safe in their relationship, they need to seek help either by talking to you or another trusted adult or calling a helpline. Fortunately, many fantastic organizations are working to shed more light on this issue.

For more information on Dating, Digital Abuse and Teens, check out these great resources.

Teens may also want to check out two apps – Love is not Abuse on iTunes and Circle of 6 on GooglePlay. Both apps are designed to educate teens about dating abuse, connect them with resources and allow them to immediately reach out for help if needed.