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Keeping Our Children Safe in the New Norm of a Virtual World

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Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, children—especially young children—did not spend their entire days, afternoons, and evenings online. Now, many children, including my own, are experiencing an increased opportunity to interact online.

Children everywhere, including those with no previous exposure and those with very little exposure, have now had a taste of the wonders of the internet, and Pandora’s Box has been opened.

As parents who have always worried about the dangers of the internet, my husband and I have required our boys to play their online games in the same room with us or in a room nearby.

But in this new normal of virtual learning, I have found myself in a quandary. How can I possibly teach my own students virtually from home while our 6th grader attends virtual classes at the same time? Then, add the fact that our 1st grader and 3rd grader also have to participate in online classes throughout the day.

How can we, as parents, continue to keep our kids safe online while trying to focus on making sure that our online work days run as smoothly as possible?

Be Present and Speak With Teachers and Instructors.

“My whole philosophy on prevention is that adults are responsible for protecting children from sexual assault,” says Feather Berkower, co-author of the book, Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse, and one of the nation’s leading experts in child sexual assault prevention. “It starts with the parents having a large presence. This isn’t any different from their soccer club or their gymnastics class or their classroom at school. Having a large presence in your child’s life reduces risk.”

Berkower—the founder of Parenting Safe Children, a program which educates adults on keeping children safe from sexual assault through workshops for parents and youth professionals—stresses that parents must let their child’s teachers and instructors know that they will be in and out during instruction and that they will be supervising their child’s virtual learning.

This is especially important when leaving young children—who are particularly unfamiliar with online instruction—alone to take part in virtual learning.

We can all appreciate the effort of our children’s after school instructors who work hard every day to continue virtual instruction in gymnastics, music lessons, martial arts, and yoga, to name a few. These classes with instructors whom we trust are helping to break up the monotony of our children’s days.

But, it is during this type of online instruction, in particular, that parents need to remain vigilant. This is the time when we need to have conversations with instructors.

“When adults are spelling out to the caregivers what is okay and what is not, then we take it (the pressure) off the child,” explains Berkower.

If you think your child is in safe hands during a class, he or she very well might be. The instructor might be trustworthy, and the other children participating might be friends with your child and your family. But what happens when your own child becomes a victim unknowingly?

I never really thought about this, until a friend of mine registered her four-year-old daughter for virtual yoga classes with an instructor she trusted. Two other classmates were participating in the class as well.

My friend had set up her daughter on a computer in her bedroom. She told her daughter that she was getting a glass of water and that she would be right back. When my friend returned—one minute later—she saw that her daughter was changing out of one yoga outfit into another.

This changing of outfits seemed completely harmless. How many of us have young daughters or nieces? The last time I was with my niece, I’m pretty sure she changed into three different dresses in one hour. Let’s face it—if a little girl has three princess outfits, she is going to want to share how beautiful she looks in every dress with anyone she encounters.

I continued to listen to my friend’s story. Her daughter changing her outfit did not seem strange to me at first. But then, my friend continued to explain that her daughter had changed in front of the computer, not knowing that everyone in the class could see her—including the older brother of one of her daughter’s friends.

I finally grasped my friend's concern.

“I realized,” my friend said, “that our daughter should not have been set up in a private area where she felt comfortable getting undressed. It’s safer to be outside or in a common room for online activity.”

Anyone can see our children in this new norm of a virtual world. Whether it’s someone your child doesn’t know in the background of a friend's or classmate’s home, or it could be as frightening as a Zoom “bomber” during a class, or even worse—what if the instructor, himself or herself, is an abuser?

Berkower—who has trained over 100,000 school children, parents, and youth professionals across the United States to make their communities “off limits” to child sexual assault—does not like to use the word “predator” when speaking about those who could harm our children. This word creates a stereotypical person in our minds. I, for one, have always thought of a “predator” as a really creepy looking person. When in reality, someone who might be an abuser could be our friendly neighbor or even a family member.

So how do we keep our kids safe online when we are all trying to learn and work in the same space? I personally understand that this is not easy.

“It might be chaotic to be learning in the same room,” Berkower agrees. “Maybe parents put the earphones in so they can’t hear their child’s lesson next to them. It comes back to getting creative.”

But if you're like me, and it is close to impossible to teach or have conference calls while your middle schooler attends virtual classes in the same room with you, what then?

"If a parent must have a child alone in the bedroom, perhaps the door can be open, and they can choose a virtual background," Berkower explains. "Perhaps parents can meet the instructor at the beginning of the session, having that 'large presence.' Also, make sure to educate children about the do's and don'ts of online use and about what to do (log off and tell an adult) if they ever feel uncomfortable with someone's behavior toward them."

Have A Conversation With Your Child.

Once we have talked to instructors or have shown them that we will provide an online presence for our children, we then need to have conversations with our own children.

“If you haven’t done it yet, have candid, open communication with your children about online safety,” Berkower says. (Check out ParentingSafeChildren.com for a free download of a family online safety agreement for children, tweens, and teens.)

I have already had that uncomfortable chat with our boys about internet safety and child abuse. It’s a parent talk that is required for boys who want to advance in Cub and Boy Scouts.

But once Berkower told me that the average age that a child is exposed to pornography online is 8 to 11 years old—and that by age 11, most children have been exposed to pornography—I knew that an even more uncomfortable talk with our 7, 9, and 11-year-old had to take place.

Berkower suggests playing “what if” games with your children when having a conversation about online safety.

“These are ways to stimulate critical thinking in children. Whatever the scenario is, come up with a concern, and then ask the child what they can say or what they can do,” Berkower explains. “What you are teaching is self-assertion. They can say, 'no'; they are allowed to. They are not in trouble. You will not punish them. You give them permission, and you praise them for resisting anything unsafe. And remind your children that they can tell an adult, even if you are stressed and busy.”

Teachers: Dos and Don’ts

And since I’m a parent and a teacher, I would like to make a few suggestions to my fellow teachers. Please familiarize yourself with your online platform. Know your settings, and especially know how to “kick out” unwanted visitors, or more importantly—learn how to “lock” your classrooms.

As Berkower says, “Abusers right now know this is happening. Everyone is sheltered in. If someone can bomb in and see the faces of children, they will. It’s important to lock these rooms and take it as seriously as a fire drill or active shooting trials. Parallel this situation to the other real dangers that families are dealing with. 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused by 18. That’s how prevalent this is. And technology is so easy as an avenue to target children.”

Teachers, please also make sure that you are NOT meeting with students in a one-on-one zoom conference.

“Just like you don’t allow a child to be one-on-one with an adult in the classroom for tutoring, or one-on-one in a vehicle transporting a child, or in a bathroom, we don’t allow it online. Period,” exclaims Berkower.

And I wholeheartedly agree with Berkower. If a student asks to meet with you, you can tell him or her to make sure that he or she Zooms in to the conference with a parent nearby.

And one last piece of advice for my fellow teachers, please allow your students to utilize a background screen during virtual learning if they choose to do so. This allows a student to protect his or her personal life from the eyes of others. Some students do not want others to see their homes in fear of being judged by classmates. And some students have parents who have asked that they display a background screen to protect their child’s and family’s privacy. Please respect that.

Educate Yourselves.

Berkower explains that many people are not fully aware of sexual abuse of children. When people are not educated or aware, it gives the abuser the opportunity to groom the adults first and then the child.

"I do not want to scare everyone with facts, rather raise awareness," says Berkower. "There are things people can do. The moment an abuser sees a vigilant parent—typically, not always, assuming the abuser is not the parent—the abuser usually moves away because they are doing their best to not get caught.”

So be present and vigilant. Talk with your child’s teachers and instructors. Have a conversation with your child. And educate yourselves.

“These policies are not written for the 99% of people who are safe with our kids,” Berkower concludes. “They are written for the 1% who aren’t.”

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