“One doesn’t recognize the really important moments in one’s life until it’s too late.”
Being the outgoing and open person that I am, I tend to be the type who can have a conversation with almost anyone. Many times these conversations are mundane, but sometimes they become deeply philosophical while other times they get personal. A number of years ago, one of my conversations took a very personal turn when someone asked me to name my biggest regret in life. This is a question that I’ve heard before, but it wasn’t a question that I’d ever thought about personally.
I believe that approximately 95% of the people who answer this question give the same basic answers.
-I wish I had spent more time with [a friend or relative]
– I wish I told [this person] how I felt about them
– I wish I had/hadn’t married this person
-I wish I went to university
My answer wasn’t in the 95% category, and it is something I still regret to this day. But before I give you my regret, I need to provide a bit of a background.
The year was 1995 and kids all over the globe are using a new internet service known as America Online (a.k.a AOL). The dangers of the internet were not yet known to many parents. I was 14 years old and I was one of these teens on AOL. I signed up for a Jewish kids e-mail penpal service. I publicly listed that I’m a 14-year-old Orthodox Jew and that I lived in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. I received a number of responses from kids my age. All of the e-mails seemed okay, but there was an exception.
I got one very odd email (name has been changed due to my memory).
Hello, I’m Chaim. I’m 42 and I live [quite close to you]. If you don’t find it too odd, I’d like to be friends with you…
I ignore the email. Even at 14, I know better than to engage with such a person.
A few months later, I find myself on AOL with a different screen name (AOL wasn’t a fan of people emailing hacking files) and back on the penpal list. Once again, I get an email from Chaim:
Hi, My name is Chaim and I live in Flatbush. I’m 42 and I like having younger friends. If you don’t think it is too creepy to befriend someone my age, I’d like to get to know you better. Perhaps we can get some ice cream.
This time I decided to email Chaim back.
Sorry, but I think it is too creepy.
I never heard from him again. End of story.
So why do I have regret over this incident?
While I was smart enough to stay away from such a solicitation, I was NOT smart enough to inform a parent, or a teacher, or a member of law enforcement about these emails. While I was smart enough to stay away from this, it burns me to think that there was a kid (or kids) who weren’t. Perhaps my lack of action caused them harm.
When it comes to online safety, kids are very reluctant to share information with their parents. This is understandable. They understand that being online is a privilege and they are afraid that if they share certain information with their parents, their online privileges might be revoked.
While this story happened over 20 years ago, and while very few people use AOL now, the threat is still the same.
Last summer, an American Airlines employee in California denied boarding to two underage girls who were trying to fly to New York to meet a man whom they met online. The employee was afraid that the girls were going to be victims of a sex-trafficking plot. (Article can be seen here.) Their parents had no idea, and the girls were naïve enough to believe that they were going to meet someone who was going to give them modeling work.
The first thing that parents need is to have open lines of communication with their children. This is true whether or not the child is allowed to use the internet. Parents need to stress specific cases that, were they to occur, need to be brought to the parents’ attention immediately.
Schools also need to take an active role in educating children to the dangers of the internet. If nothing else, it will show the child that it isn’t just their parent being overly cautious. It will also help if the child has a way of reporting online issues, without involving their parent.
Parents who allow their children online access need to monitor their child’s access. Parents need to be aware of the latest threats and issues. Kids will always be one or two steps ahead of their parents, and the parents need to try to keep pace. Parents need to know that there are such things as “decoy-apps” which are made specifically to fool parents. Most importantly, parents need to make sure that their kids understand the risks and are able (and willing) to share information with their parents.
Back when I was 14, I didn’t share the information and it might have cost someone their life. Can your child make the same mistake, or have you given them the tools, confidence and security that they can share such information?
Yisroel Picker is a Social Worker who lives in Jerusalem. He has a private practice which specializes in working with people of all ages helping them understand their own thought processes, enabling them to improve their level of functioning, awareness, social skills and more.
To speak with Yisroel about speaking at a child safety event or to discuss a personal case, email him at email@example.com
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