How to Protect Your Kids from Online Catfishing
Catfishing happens when someone online pretends to be someone they're not. Using a fake name, profile, and sometimes even fake pictures, they target others who they manipulate for their own gain. This may mean they're after money or sex, or they may just get a thrill from emotionally manipulating someone else. Regardless of their intent, these interactions are a form of cyberbullying that can have a tremendous, even traumatic emotional impact on their victims. To protect your kids from online catfishing, teach them how to use social media responsibly, maintain open lines of communication, and carefully monitor their internet usage.
Teaching Online Responsibility
Use generic photos and images.Kids and teenagers should be careful posting pictures of themselves online, because these images could open them up to predators and catfish. This is particularly important with images that are viewable by the general public.
- For example, your kids may use a picture of a pet or other animal, or a cartoon avatar, as a profile picture.
- One tactic catfish use to get close to their victims is flattery in the form of compliments about how the person looks. If they don't know what your kids look like, they won't be able to get to them this way.
- Check the privacy settings on your kids' social media accounts, and teach them how to manage their privacy if they want to post selfies or pictures with their friends. You can adjust the settings so that those types of pictures are only visible by close friends and family members, not the public or even "friends of friends."
- Keep in mind that your kids' friends also may post pictures of them. Make sure they are at least receiving a notification when they are tagged in someone else's picture, so they have the option of removing the tag.
Choose an appropriate screen name.The best screen names for kids if you want to protect them from online catfishing should be impersonal and gender-neutral. Nothing in the screen name should reveal the child's real name, age, or location.
- You may want to create your kids' screen names for them, or help them choose one that they like. Make sure they understand what information cannot be in their screen name, and why.
- Kids' screen names also shouldn't include anything that could be interpreted as suggestive. These kinds of screen names can attract predators, including catfish, who believe your kids are open to something they're not.
- Avoid words such as "girl," "boy," "darling," "baby," "cutie," "princess," "flower," "fairy," and similar. Any numbers should be random – don't use a zip code, area code, or birth date, for example.
Avoid private conversations.Catfish are able to emotionally manipulate their victims because they get them alone. You can adjust your kids' privacy settings on their social media accounts so that they do not receive private messages from people they don't know.
- Explain to your kids the importance of not having private conversations with people they don't know in person, especially if they frequent chat rooms or play multiplayer video games in which the players interact with each other while playing the game.
- Talking to strangers in a group situation is generally okay, because a catfish or other online predator isn't really going to make a move when there are other people who can observe the interaction.
- However, they may still try to build up trust with your kids so they won't see anything wrong with having a private conversation. Tell your kids that if someone they don't know in real life asks to have a private conversation, they can simply say something like "I'm sorry, I don't go private. Catch you later!" They also can make up an excuse, although they need to understand that if they do that, the person probably will keep asking them.
Connect only with people you know in real life.Encourage your kids to make social media connections with people they know and trust, but not with people they only know from online and have never met or interacted with in person.
- This means kids should be cautious with friends of friends as well. Sometimes a catfish finds a way into their victim's life because they actually do have a mutual friend. This mutual friend typically isn't aware of this person's online games. Since your kids see that they have a friend in common, they think it's okay to go ahead and connect with this person even though they don't know them in real life.
- People you know in real life also can be deceptive and manipulative online. This is something to keep in mind if, for example, your kids get a friend request from someone who moved to a different part of the country and hasn't spoken to them in awhile.
- A good basic rule to teach your kids is that if they get a friend request and their first reaction is "Why?" they probably should ignore that friend request.
Keep personal information off the internet.Often a catfish will read through their potential victim's profiles and posts to learn as much as they can about the person. The more information they have, the more potential weapons they have for their manipulation.
- Kids will be attracted to someone if they feel like they have a lot in common about that person, or if that person seems to really understand them. The way a catfish establishes this level of commonality and trust is to study their victim's social media profiles and then parrot back those things that they know are of interest.
- It's often the case that your kids will forget things they've posted online after a few weeks or even a few days – especially if they are active online and post frequently. All of these old posts can be used as fodder by the catfish to establish things they have in common with your kids.
- If there isn't a lot of personal information on your kids' social media accounts, a catfish won't have much to use and your kids won't be an easy target.
Become familiar with terms of service.Every social media website or app has a terms of service agreement to which you must agree before setting up an account on that site. While these agreements can be cumbersome to read through, understanding them is important.
- Generally, the terms of service spell out what behavior is and is not permitted by users of the app or website. If a user is violating the terms of service agreement, you can report it to the company that runs the website or app, and that user's account will be suspended.
- Cyberbullying violates the terms of service of all major social media platforms, but proving that cyberbullying or catfishing is occurring to the point that the company will suspend the user's account is difficult.
- Typically, the company will respond to your report by instructing that you or your kids should simply block this person so that they cannot access your kids' information or contact them. If you have already done this and the person is still harassing your kids, you may be able to spur the company to take further action.
- Take note of the steps you must take to report a violation of the terms of service agreement, and the type of evidence you need to present. That way, if your kids are contacted by a catfish, you'll have the knowledge you need to protect them.
Monitoring Internet Usage
Keep the computer in a common area of the house.Your kids will be less inclined to engage in online behavior they know you wouldn't approve of if their only opportunity to use the computer is when everything they are doing is visible to you and other members of the household.
- However, don't forget that kids can access the internet in other ways, such as if they have their own smart phone or tablet.
Maintain parental controls.Parental control software can help you monitor what your kids are doing on the internet as well as adjust the user settings on the computer to ensure that your kids are protected and can't access harmful things.
Review your kids' browsing history.To appropriately monitor what your kids are doing online, you'll want to adjust the administrative settings on the computer the kids use so that they are not permitted to delete their browser history, cache, or cookies.
- Reading through the browser history will tell you the sites that your kids visited, how many times they went there, and generally what they looked at while they were there.
- This level of monitoring doesn't just help protect your kids from online catfishing, it also ensures that they aren't doing anything else harmful online, such as downloading a virus.
- You also may want to create user settings for them that do not permit them to download anything from the internet or install any apps or programs on the computer.
Check your kids' mobile devices regularly.If your kids have a smart phone or tablet, they also may be online or using social media there. To protect your kids from online catfishing, you need to have access to all devices on which they access the internet.
- If you can, set up your kids' mobile devices so that they sync with a main computer. That way you can check everything all at once rather than having to check each device, which can seem intrusive to your kids.
- Adjust the user settings on your kids' smart phones and tablets so that they can't delete or manipulate data, or download apps, such as chat apps, without your knowledge and permission.
Set limits for internet time.Limiting the amount of time your kids can spend on the computer is as much about ensuring they have a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle as it is protecting them from online predators and catfishing.
- You also want to make sure that your kids aren't on the internet for extended periods of time, particularly late at night, when many catfish choose to lurk about online.
- For example, you may allow your kids 20 minutes of free time to use the internet each night. Particularly if they have a lot of different sites they like to visit, 20 minutes isn't really enough time for them to start a relationship with someone or become vulnerable to catfishing.
Use a family email address.Help your kids set up their social media accounts, and set them up with an email address that you can access. This way you can also set up the notifications so that you receive an email alert when someone tries to contact your kids.
- Older teenagers may have a problem with this, because they feel that you are spying on them and not giving them enough privacy. Explain that you are only trying to protect them and keep them from harm, but give them as much privacy as you feel comfortable doing while still keeping them safe.
- Keep the lines of communication open, and ensure that your kids feel comfortable coming to you if they have any issues online, or if someone online is making them uneasy. Let them know that you won't be angry with them, that you only care for their safety and security.
Make a list of the websites and apps your kids use.You can't monitor your kids' internet usage if you don't know where they are when they go online. Keep a master list of their social media profiles, and update it regularly.
- You may want to limit your kids' access to certain types of websites or apps, particularly those that have a reputation as being a place for people to "hook up." Even if your kids don't intend to use them that way, other people do, and they may assume that your kids are looking for the same thing.
- Older teenagers may want a little more privacy, but with younger kids, your master list should include all of the passwords to their accounts so that you can access them if you need to.
Identifying a Catfish
Be wary of people you don't know in real life.Because kids can be very trusting, make sure they understand that even someone who seems perfectly nice could also be lying to them. If they don't already have a personal relationship with the person, there's little reason to connect with them online.
- If you're monitoring your kids' social media and internet usage, you can ask them about their friends. If you don't recognize the name (say, as someone you know your kids are friends with at school), ask them how they know the person. If they say they only know them through online interaction, you can press more about how their relationship developed.
- Avoid being accusatory, and tell your kids that you aren't mad at them. You simply want to make sure that they're safe, and that they're making responsible choices about their online activities.
- You also want to let your kids know that if they ever have any questions or problems with someone, or if someone online makes them uncomfortable, they should immediately cease communication with that person and block them. Make sure they understand that they don't owe anybody time or attention online for any reason.
Review the profile carefully.If you suspect that someone your kids are interacting with online is a catfish, you may be able to find hints of this by looking at that person's social media profiles. Check both on the site where your kids met them as well as elsewhere on the internet.
- Some catfish are very elaborate, and have multiple profiles across many different apps and sites. Some are only on one site, and you can't find any trace of them anywhere else online.
- Often a catfish's profile will be relatively new, and may have few friends. They also may have tons of friends, but there never seems to be any personal interaction, or none of these people seem to know the person in real life.
- You also should watch out for vague profiles, or profiles in which all of the pictures are selfies. Real people typically will have at least a few pictures of themselves with friends or family – a catfish typically won't have any pictures like this.
Check for mutual friends.When your kids get a friend request or other contact online from someone they don't know in real life, they should automatically figure out if this person also is friends with anyone else that they know personally.
- If there are mutual friends, you or your kids can talk to those people and find out more about this person. Ask them if they know the person in real life, if they've ever met them, and what they're like.
- If there's a mutual friend who does know the person in real life, find out how they met the person, how well they know them, and how long they've known them. You also might want to try to find out why this person wants to be friends online with your kids when they don't personally know them.
- Keep in mind that there might be an innocent explanation. For example, it could be that the person is going to be switching to your kids' school next year, and wants to get to know some of their classmates in advance. However, it still pays to do your homework if you want to protect your kids from online catfishing.
Use a reverse image search.Commonly used search engines all have a function you can use to search by image rather than by using key words. This type of search can be an easy way to quickly identify a catfish.
- Simply copy or save the suspicious person's profile picture, and maybe a few other photos from their profile. Then drop them into the search engine and check the results.
- For a catfish who is using fake images, you typically will find another social media account or website with the same pictures prominently displayed. Catfish typically don't go to great lengths to find fake images to use. They may even be using pictures of a model or celebrity.
- If you determine that the person is using fake pictures, talk to your kids about it and present the evidence to them. Suggest that they block this person from their social media accounts, and let them know that you are there to support them.
Video: 5 Tips to Keep Your Child Safe On The Internet
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