First, second, and third: Most strangers are harmless, not dangerous. A teeny, tiny portion of strangers are Bad People who will do Bad Things if they get the chance. Sadly, because those Bad Things are So Very Bad, it is important to learn about how to recognize potential Stranger Danger and to be very careful around strangers.
Little kids are given a lot of rules by adults where they must “never” do X, like drive a car. As they grow up, that “never” gradually turns into “be very careful when you” for a lot of things. Meeting online friends IRL (In Real Life) is one of those things. Little kids are unlikely to ever make an online friend who is such a good and unusual friend that there is a reason to meet IRL. In middle and high school and beyond, that may change. As an adult, it almost certainly will. (Online dating is not going away.)
Meeting Virtual Friends in Real Life
Schools tell kids to never, ever do this, and that’s not bad advice–to a point. Pen pals used to write letters back and forth for years, exchanging letters, cards, pictures, and even gifts through actual, physical snail mail without ever meeting. Some lived on opposite sides of the world. Online friends, including forum and online gaming friends, are a modern version of this. Like pen pals, there is rarely a need to meet IRL. (To my surprise, pen pals are still a thing, but they have been updated for the modern world.)
But need isn’t everything. “Virtual” friendships can be very real and eventually real friends (even online/virtual ones) want to meet in person or at least talk. As pervasive as it has become, it can be hard to remember that the internet isn’t that old. A lot of people have dated and even married people they met online. If your parents met online, it’s kind of hard not to think of it as a place where you can make a real connection to others.
It is easy for adults to see the dangers for kids in meeting people online, but it isn’t always easy to see the benefits. Finding people with similar interests or personalities can be incredibly valuable, especially when there aren’t any who live near you. There is a dark side, of course, in cyber bullying, but there is so much cyber support available that wasn’t there even ten years ago. We are not the only family who knows our teenager didn’t suddenly go mute because we can hear him talking to his friends on Skype!
Remind your kids that when parents, teachers, and other adults fuss, the internet really is still fairly new and everyone is trying to work out the safety guidelines around meeting total strangers who may already know a lot about you. One hundred years is an eye-blink in the history of the human race. A mere hundred years ago, most people knew everyone in their town and cars were rare. Knowing how to stay safe, and keep those you love safe, when you could “meet” hundreds or even thousands of strangers in mere minutes by uploading a video or blog post can be hard.
I know nearly four dozen women that I first “met” online more than fifteen years ago. I have only ever met a few in person. For kids today, these kinds of groups will probably be normal.
How Long Should You Wait?
Personally, I wouldn’t meet anyone I had known less than six months to a year, preferably over a year (minimum), online. Longer is definitely better.
What difference does the length of time make? If a Bad Person is online pretending to be someone different–a kid, a teen, a boy, a girl, a teacher, an expert in a field you are interested in, it doesn’t matter–the odds are good that they will have the patience to wait for a few weeks or even a few months. Some may have the patience to wait for years, but most will give up and go after easier prey.
A big part of the reason I am so comfortable with my online friends of fifteen plus years is that a liar (including predators) simply couldn’t keep track of their lies for that long. It’s hard to keep lies straight and to remember them. The longer you interact, the harder it is to fake being someone else.
How do you know if your kid “needs” to meet them? Truthfully, in most cases, there is no need. They may want to meet, but that is different. Online video chat is a wonderful invention. In one case, I want to meet my friend because she is very ill and may die soon.
Every now and then, an online friend may have an interest in common that can only be worked on together, in real life. Or one of them may be able to help the others with a problem. Sometimes, your kid and this person have been friends for years and just want to hang out in person. Other times, it happens that one or both are taking a trip and will be unusually close to each other, making it possible to meet easily.
Whatever the reason, they both want to meet, they think they need to meet, and your kid and their buddy have convinced both sets of parents it is a good idea. (It goes without saying that having a kid meet an adult is several steps beyond creepy.) What next?
Is it Safe?
How do you know it is safe to meet someone you “know” online IRL? First, second, third, and foremost, they are someone you have known for months or years and they have been very, very consistent in what they tell you. Whether it’s your kids or you as an adult, this remains true.
As stated above, it’s hard to keep track of lies. Everyone forgets some things, but if an online friend routinely forgets important things they said happened or changes things about themselves, it’s a very bad sign. The more difference between what they say at different times, the worse sign it is.
Where Should You Meet?
The number one thing to remember about meeting virtual friends in real life: Never, ever, EVER meet them anywhere except a reasonably busy public place in broad daylight, and bring an adult with you. Depending on the situation, meeting in a group can be a good idea. The adult who is going can give advice on things like meeting as a group as well as making make sure someone else knows who is being met, where, and why. Personally, I have this information entered in my online calendar so no matter where I go, my family can find me, if need be.
Once you meet, do not let them convince you to go to another location that you need to drive to or where other people can’t see you, such as taking a walk away from a crowded picnic area into a secluded wooded area. If you agreed to meet to see a movie and need to walk from a restaurant or coffee shop near the theater to the theater as a group, that’s OK, but don’t let anyone pressure you or your kids into going somewhere/doing something that doesn’t feel safe.
It’s important to be careful, but as stated at the beginning, most people are basically good. Don’t let fear keep you, or your kids, from making new friends and joining new groups. Enjoy the experience!
This post was excerpted from the forthcoming book Survival Skills for All Ages #2: 26 Mental & Urban Survival Skills by Liz Long.