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Stranger Danger Doesn’t Work In The Real World or Online World


Recently, I have been reading articles online from some experts who say that parents should be teaching online “stranger danger” given the risks of online predation. As an online safety advocate, child safety advocate, and a law enforcement professional I can share with you that teaching “Stranger Danger” in the real world or online world does not work.

Real World:

Don’t Talk to Strangers

Traditionally, parents have taught their children to be aware, and to never talk to strangers. Well, statistics have shown that the person who will likely abduct your child will not be a stranger, but rather someone who you and your child probably know, love, or trust. I often hear parents tell their children to not talk to strangers; the irony here is that the predator will not likely be a stranger, and that parents themselves often violate this rule over and over again when they tell their child to:

  • “Answer the nice man’s question!”

  • “Say hello to the nice lady.”

  • “Tell the nice man your name.”

Parents need to understand that no matter how many times they tell their child not to talk to strangers, they are still going to do so anyway in their day-to-day activities. Technically, a new store clerk, a new teacher, a new babysitter are all, by definition, “strangers” who I guarantee your child will converse with. Soon, as a matter of repetition, your child will begin to question your position that strangers are bad people, because most strangers that they are interacting with are nice people who do not want to hurt them.

**Important teaching point**

“DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS” isn’t a rule, but a highly flexible and incomprehensible concept that only mom and dad understand, if they truly understand it at all.

Stranger Profiles

Children do not easily understand stranger profiles. In fact, when I teach children between the ages of 5 and 10 years about safety, I ask them the following question, “What does a stranger look like?” Some of the answers I get back from the children include:

  • Someone who wears dark clothing

  • Someone who likes to wear a hat and sunglasses

  • Someone who dresses in dirty clothing

  • Someone who stinks

  • Someone who likes to wear a mask and wig

Although all cute answers, it proves the fact that children do not understand “stranger” profiles, and that most have their own unrealistic beliefs of whom they believe their real threat will actually be.

Teaching “Stranger Danger”

A fellow child safety advocate in the United States, Gavin De Becker, has stated the following:

“If you are a parent who is trying to scare your child safe there will be two likely results; it won’t work and the parent loses credibility or, it will work and the child will be afraid.”

Mr. De Becker further goes on to say,

“Fearful Children are easily exploited by sexual predators who threaten to harm parents, pets, or the children themselves. These predators use fear to control; they almost never have any intentions of carrying out the threats. Children are so afraid of strangers that they will comply with any order. Most predators are interested in children who will co-operate because they are afraid.”

Teaching “Stranger Danger,” in my opinion, is nothing more than attempting to scare the child safe, which doesn’t work, and according to De Becker, plays right into the hands of a child predator. In fact, speak with any educator and they will tell you that when a child is frightened, learning stops. This is an important reason why I believe that when teaching children, we need to “enlighten and not frighten.” Every time I go to an elementary school, I often go to the school’s library and look for the book, “Berenstain Bears Stranger Danger,” and about 95% of the time, I find it. This book is dark, scary, and gothic in artistic form, and bases the content on scaring children to fear strangers. This book should be removed from all schools because the underlying message it promotes, “stranger danger,” is flawed.

The Faults of Teaching Stranger Danger:

“All Adam’s small life we taught him not to take candy from a stranger, all the things that we thought were appropriate. But we also taught him to respect authority figures unequivocally: that he should be a little gentleman. I think if we had put more emphasis on the fact that he had the right to say no, maybe the outcome of his case might have been different… …he might have been alive today if he wasn’t such a little gentleman”

-John Walsh

Besides some of the concerns that I have already mentioned, there are several other faults to teaching stranger danger:

1. The message implies that strangers are only bad people, and not someone you know.

What good is this rule when many who want to abduct or sexually exploit your child will be someone who you and the child know, love, or trust?

2. The message implies that if in trouble, don’t seek help from a stranger.

The irony here is that if the child needs help or assistance, and you or another safe person or safe place is not near, the ability to approach and ask a stranger for help is the single greatest asset your child could have.

3. The message provides an peace of mind.

I have heard many parents say that they don’t need to hear my message about child safety, because they have taught their child not to talk to strangers.

4. The message does not allow children to develop their own inherent skills of evaluating people and behavior.

This is a skill that is needed throughout life, but parents often teach their children to not pay attention to this important safety instinct.

Point number four needs to be emphasized. Children who are allowed to communicate with strangers are exercising their intuition, which is needed to stay safe, thus learning what FEELS comfortable and what does not. A child who can actually approach a stranger in public is less likely to be a victim than a child who is taught to never talk to strangers. This important fact is something that I nurtured in my son as he was growing up. At the age of four, when we would go to a restaurant, my son, Brandon, would ask for crayons and paper. If the waiter or waitress did not bring him his favorite colored crayon (orange), he would ask me to approach the waiter to get him one. Instead, I would have Brandon approach any of the waiters who he thought would help and ask them for his orange crayon. Another way I would nurture my son’s intuition was when we were out shopping at the mall. Often Brandon would ask me for the time and instead of providing him with an answer, I would encourage him to approach a man or woman who he thought could provide the time, and ask them instead, which he freely did. Again, in both circumstances, Brandon was learning to approach people whom he did not know (strangers) who he felt were safe for him to get assistance from.

Remember, from a child’s perspective, it is much easier to understand dangerous situations and actions, rather than stranger profiles. I hope I have convinced you that we need to get away from teaching “stranger danger” because it just doesn’t work.

“Teaching children to avoid all strangers isn’t useful. If children develop a fear of strangers, you’re setting up a dangerous situation. If they’re ever alone and in trouble, they’re isolated from help”

-Careful Not Fearful

Online World:

Much like the real world, the online predator, although likely not going to be someone who the child knows, loves, or trusts, will likely first creep the child and the groom the child over time online to break down the stranger stigma.

The secret to online safety specific to sexual predation is to teach our kids about online “situational danger” rather than “stranger danger,” but to do this we need to know and understand who the online predator is and how they operate (the grooming process) to prey upon our kids online. If both parents and their kids understand the process, then they can identify it early enough, thus hopefully not becoming another statistic.

The Online Predator Who Are They?

When we think “internet predator,” most will imagine someone who is preying upon our youth, utilizing technology, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Most internet experts agree, however, that there are, in fact 4 categories of internet predators:

1. The Emotional/Psychological Predator: this is the internet dating predator who will make you feel good, but wound you emotionally. These guys are chameleons and emotional shape shifters who change their tactics to keep you around.

2. The Sexual/Physical Predator: This is the pedophile that preys upon our children.

3. The Reputation Predator: This is the person who will look to purposely damage your good reputation via spreading falsehoods or utilizing cyberbullying.

4. The Financial Predator: This is the person who will utilize the Internet to scam you out of your hard earned money.

Specific to the sexual predator, most internet predators are:

  • Very computer savvy and blend well into the cyber world

  • College graduates who are clean cut and outwardly law abiding

  • Have successful careers, and use their position in society to throw off any suspicion

  • Usually middle-aged males who appear to be trusting to both parents and children

The internet and its anonymity offers a virtual place for the online predator to hunt their prey with relative freedom be it for an emotional, financial, physical, or reputational crime. Many of these predators are extremely knowledgeable in youth subject matter and current events, and they are able to speak with teens using current online lingo. They are experts at what they do, conducting research, and knowing how to build rapport quickly with their intended target. Of real importance is that these predators can be anyone, and as the group “Perverted Justice” has shown, they can be police officers, lawyers, actors, doctors, teachers, coaches, and CEO’s.

Although there is a belief out there that the internet predator that specializes in child pornography does so to make money, research has found that most distribution of this type of material is done on trade rather than for financial gain. Child pornographers like to expand their collections by trading with one another, and the internet has been a boon to not only this type of activity, but also in the sharing of “trade secrets” such as how to “cyber-groom” and lure our children for sexual exploitation and how to avoid law enforcement detection.

According to experts, there are four categories of internet child sexual predators to be aware of:

1. Collectors:

This is a group of sex offenders who are interested in collecting child pornography, and usually do not want to meet a child in person.

2. Travelers:

This is a group of sexual offenders that will target children for the purpose of making a face-to-face meeting to have sex with them. These predators will become completely obsessed with the child they have targeted, and will travel vast distances to meet the child.

3. Manufacturers:

This group of sexual offenders includes both collectors and distributors of child pornography. Not all collectors are manufacturers, but all manufacturers are collectors. These predators financially profit from selling child pornography. Often, this predator will entice the child/youth to create their own sexually inappropriate “show” via a web cam that they will now record and sell for money.

4. Chatters:

This group of sexual offenders rarely attempts to meet their victims face to face and often do not collect child pornography. Instead this group prefers to have cybersex or phone sex on sites such omegle.com.

Why Does the Internet Fuel these Sexual Predators?

  • It offers easy and anonymous access to children and youth from around the world 24/7.

  • It presents risky online behavior that children and youth engage in while online such as posting too much personal information in their non-secured social network, or even the willingness to freely interact with on-line strangers on sites such as Omegle.com, that the predator can hook into and take advantage of via social engineering. In our introduction we stated that the research has consistently demonstrated that sexual predation (luring) cases typically involve teens who WILLINGLY meet with adults KNOWING they will be engaging in sexual activities. This same research has shown that the youth who are at the greatest risk on-line, in all areas of risk discussed in this book (especially sexual exploitation in all its forms), and targeted by these predators are usually the same youth who are at greater risk in their off-line real world activities. Often these are the youth that have significant psychosocial challenges, intentionally engage in risk from their peers in the form of sexual solicitation, sexual harassment, cyberbullying and have parents that are ineffectually involved in their on-line activity.

  • It offers virtual validation from others of like-mindedness where they can share their conquests.