Parents can’t afford to be naive when kids go online

I WAS a parent who preferred to trust children raised with common sense and a strong moral compass to steer themselves online and on social media rather than inserting myself into their friendship groups.

I believed that looking over my kids’ shoulders into their accounts violated their trust and could stop them sharing with me.

I didn’t let my three children have social media accounts until the age most platforms allow — 13 — and I followed the guidelines offered by cyber-safety experts.

How naive I was. I even wrote a column strongly criticising a parent who created a fake profile of a girl so she could get inside her children’s circles unnoticed.

I thought if you teach kids they can’t trust a parent, who can they trust? Also, I didn’t and still don’t want them being unnecessarily wary of men they don’t know and I didn’t want to “cotton wool” them.

But I was wrong.

Having read the terrifying story of Alicia Kozakiewicz, I realise how stupid I was. Kozakiewicz is the US child-eSafety advocate who was groomed online as a trusting 13-year-old. She was picked up at her home not by a boy but by a 40-year-old sex predator who drove her across several states before she was horribly sexually abused and beaten in a basement for four days.

The man streamed her ordeal online for other predators, a mistake Kozakiewicz believes saved her life as it allowed the FBI to find her. No parent could be unaffected by her story, or be complacent about their children’s online footprint, activities and contacts.

Kozakiewicz told her story at a national eSafety conference and hearing it made me feel witless.

I thank dumb luck that my sons, 19 and 17, have not had negative online experiences and I’m changing my approach with my 13-year-old girl entirely.

The sophistication with which predators target children has increased exponentially since the first mobile device-owning kids went online. Now kids have devices put in their hands so young that there is such a thing as an iPotty toilet trainer you can connect to an iPad. Parents thrust devices at tiny kids to get a couple of minutes of peace and that’s a fact of modern parenting life — it probably buys many of them a bit of sanity.

But with it comes responsibility to engage with what children are watching and that’s something many parents don’t fully understand.

Kozakiewicz is right when she says parents must demand passwords and snoop on their kids whenever they like.

She has exploded my precious idea that kids deserve some privacy — her stark warning that no child is immune from grooming means their right to privacy goes out of the window.

Sadly, she’s also right that we should teach young children that the “bogey man” does exist. An acquaintance whose son was in the process of being groomed by a paedophile on a public Minecraft platform learned that the hard way when she overheard him asking the boy to remove his clothes.

But it’s not just that, or Kozakiewicz’s story of being chained, dog collared and abused that has smashed my cyber-parenting innocence.

It’s the number of mainstream public figures we thought were respectable who have been charged with child porn offences in recent years. This week it was a star of the hit teen-focused series Glee, Mark Salling.

But closer to home, in recent years it has also been a smiling presenter of an ABC antiques show, Andy Muirhead, and a journalist on A Current Affair , Ben McCormack who have faced court for child porn offences.

Just in the last month a Frankston man was charged with possessing and transmitting child porn and grooming a child and an ADF soldier based in Wodonga was charged with transmitting, soliciting and producing child pornography.

These are just the cases that long, painstaking investigations by the Joint Child Exploitation Team have closed.

You have to admire brave and generous people such as Alicia Kozakiewicz for going around the world and telling people the reality of what happened to her at the age of 13.

And if you have your own 13-year-old (or any other kid online) then, like me, you should be demanding their online passwords no later than tonight.