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Stranger-danger on the Internet: how parents can help

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October 12, 2013 - 8:27 AM

VERNON - Would you let your 11-year-old flash her chest to a stranger on the street? Of course not. But the predators aren’t on the street anymore; they’re online.

Sgt. Mathias Vanlaer works for B.C.’s Integrated Child Exploitation Unit and says the old adage “Don’t talk to strangers” is as relevant as ever. 

Just this week, a Vernon man was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for luring an 11-year-old online, convincing her to meet with him, and having sex with her, among crimes against four other minors.

“If we were to flash back 20 years, and your parents were cautious and proactive, they would say don’t talk to strangers. It’s exactly the same thing we need to do today online,” Vanlaer, a father himself, says.

“The predators will migrate where they’re more likely to access children.”

He uses the analogy of a public park or pool: you keep your eye on your children. Every parent knows the hair-raising feeling and protective instincts activated by a lingering look. When they’re old enough to venture off alone, you’ve likely instilled stranger-danger into them. But Vanlaer says a whole generation of parents who didn’t grow up with the Internet are failing to teach their children how to surf the net responsibly.

“That void is causing some issues today,” Vanlaer says. “We’re hoping the children of today will be better parents, because they’ll know (the dangers).”

He says a big problem is the terminology used by sites like Facebook.

“They think, he’s my friend because I ‘friended’ him,” Vanlaer says. “These are not friends, they (are) strangers.”

Like the old-school predator, online stalkers will begin their conversations politely. It will seem harmless at first. The more cautious children will run and tell their parents, or block the stalker. But if the child is open to contact, and doesn’t shy off, the predator will close in on its prey.

Rather than fighting technology, Vanlaer believes it’s more effective to adapt to it. While predators have new tools, so do police. Online reporting has skyrocketed through sites like CyberTip and Need Help Now. Victims can remain anonymous if they wish.

“The internet is not going away. It’s about using it responsibly. Communication, and very simple awareness of how to use it will eliminate 99.9 per cent of the problems,” he says.

Parents must play an active role in teaching their kids how to navigate the web safely, Vanlaer says. Otherwise, the consequences can be tragic. Think Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons. It can end, or ruin, a young person’s life before they get a chance to live it. 

“It’s not a matter of not wanting to trust your children, but they need to understand the Internet is a tool that comes with serious responsibilities.”

To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at, call (250)309-5230 or tweet @charhelston.


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