A year ago, if you had told me a raging pandemic would sweep across the globe, all schools would be closed, and parents would wind up holding down full-time jobs while simultaneously supervising their kids’ education, all from the comfort of their living rooms, I’d have told you to check the small print on your prescription medication. Yet here we are.
When you’re in the thick of it, it is difficult to appreciate the biblical proportions of what is happening in the world right now.
As a single, working mom of a child on the spectrum, I know just how tough these past few months have been. So let me tell you something, moms and dads:
You’re doing great. You’ve got this and I’ve got your backs, brothers and sisters.
We’ve all heard the morning cry, “I’m bored!” emanating from our little angels’ bedrooms. Actually, now that I think of it make that the morning, afternoon, evening, and night-time cry.
And as we all know, the devil finds work for idle hands, and your kids are not the only ones feeling the effects of the current COVID-19 crisis.
Who am I talking about? Predators, that’s who. They’re bored, just like the rest of us. Like so many, they too can’t leave their homes, and if they do actually go out, parks and shopping malls are either closed or reminiscent of bad zombie apocalyptic movies, so they turn their attentions to their laptops, tablets, and phones instead.
And no, it is not to google the benefits the coronavirus pandemic has had on our planet’s air quality. It is to target your kid.
Believe me, my daughter has been there. She has been targeted, contacted, bullied, and harassed by pedophiles, all within the six-inch confines of her mobile phone screen.
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It all started when she downloaded an innocuous-looking app which placed fun-looking bunny ears, cute puppy faces, cat whiskers, you name it, filters on the image of her face. Looking at the app within Google Play Store, it is clearly aimed at young girls, with lots of pink hearts, pictures of smiling pre-teens, and words like “Super Sweet.”
The only problem was, the very moment she started using her phone’s camera to take a picture of her face, she was bombarded with inappropriate messages from strangers, telling her they could see her through her phone camera, asking her to trade nude images with them, and threatening that if she did not do as they said, she would never see her mother again.
Devious? Yes. Intelligent? No. One guy left his telephone number and asked her to call him, so she did; or rather, I did. Suffice to say “Charlie” received an aggressive and decidedly un-ladylike phone call from Mommie Dearest, with added, but necessary, expletives.
Observationally, it is interesting to note that when the app is not in use, or opened by someone with an adult’s face, nothing happens; nada, crickets. But when it is a young girl looking at the screen, the messages come flooding in. Hmmmmm, food for thought, isn’t it?
So take it from a mother and daughter team, who learned their lessons the hard way. If you want your nearest and dearest to stay safe online, here are a few tips to consider:
1. Hold off on allocating a phone or iPad to your child for as long as you can. If your child is happy using a laptop in the living room with other family members around, then stick to that for as long as possible.</li>
2. If you are setting up a phone or tablet for your kid, set it up as a child’s device. For instance, for android phones, when you power it on for the first time, it will ask your date of birth. Enter your child’s date of birth, not yours, and Google Family Link will automatically kick in. You will install the adult version of the app on your own phone and control the features of your kid’s phone from there. Check it out. It works, it’s robust, and it’s free.
3. Consider purchasing a family-friendly sim. I found a network specifically aimed at children and their parents. The sim only allows incoming and outgoing calls and texts from a list of safe numbers the parent specifies. In that way, strangers cannot contact your kid, nor can they receive verification messages from social media platforms.
4. If your child is suddenly acting differently, especially around his/her phone—for instance, quickly closing out of an app whenever you are nearby, or physically turning his/her screen away from your sight, it could be an indication that all is not well.
5. Do random spot checks, either on your parent app or on your child’s phone. Red flags can be spending disproportionate amounts of time on a specific app, or accessing apps late into the night. You can use parental controls to place time limits on when the phone can and cannot be used.
6. Talk to your child about stranger danger. If he/she is at the eye-rolling tween stages, and his/her mom is just way too uncool to possibly know like, anything, then get someone you trust and he/she respects to talk to him/her instead.
7. Inform the authorities. In addition to the police, there are children’s online safety charities you can contact for advice and to report anything sinister. They are super-helpful and will help spread the word about new kiddie-catcher apps out there.
8. Keep your kid busy. If he/she is utilizing his/her time productively, he/she will be less inclined to get bored so quickly.
9. Stay alert. Your child will be safe as long as you are vigilant. It is up to you to ensure your kid’s safety, so don’t take your eye off the ball.
10. Don’t be frightened by these predators. You are an autism mom. They are afraid of you. Remember that. Just ask “Charlie.”
This article was featured in Issue 107 – Caring for Your Autism Family