Internet vigilance can protect children, teens from online predators

Internet vigilance can protect children, teens from online predators

Devin Vargas didn’t think there was anything to worry about when interacting with people online.

Vargas, like many teenagers, had heard it all before in school assemblies, from parents, or in lectures from people older than them. For many children growing up in a digital age, online safety is something hammered into them from a young age.

However, when Vargas was old enough to be in online spaces, things were different than expected.

“You’re told in school that predators are going to look a very specific kind of way. They’re going to come and ask for your personal information, but you don’t really expect they’re going to come to you under the guise of friendship,” Vargas said.

On social media accounts, Vargas could find people to connect with in ways that felt more authentic than most real-life friendships. Vargas had friends at school, but online friends were different. These friends shared interests and wanted to talk all the time. It didn’t hurt that interacting online helped Vargas feel more confident and free to be themselves.

Before long, Vargas had a large circle of online friends who shared interests in music, movies and television. Those friends varied in gender, location and sometimes age.

One of the people Vargas interacted with online was an older user who occupied the same internet spaces. This person was in their twenties, but still consumed almost the same content as Vargas.

Online, Vargas was used to getting messages often with compliments or conversations. When Vargas messaged this person, he would reply with obscene images. At only sixteen, Vargas was confused why this had happened. The man messaging Vargas said it had been his roommate playing a joke.

So, naively, Vargas believed the person. Until it happened again. And another time after that.

At that point, Vargas realized it was time to block this individual, but even after doing so, the damage was done.

In online spaces, people like the person Vargas interacted with are often hiding online.In a digital age, many children and teenagers have constant internet access. Being online may make them vulnerable to predators, and parents can learn how to stop it.

The numbers

According to a Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network study conducted on child sexual abuse, one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 have experienced sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. These statistics indicate thousands of children are entering adulthood with sexual abuse in their past.

The effects can be life-changing for many kids. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network study reported sexual abuse in childhood makes victims more likely to develop drug problems, PTSD and depression as they reach adulthood.

Adrianne Simeone, executive director of The Mama Bear Effect, said most parents just aren’t aware of the intricacies predators can use online. Her nonprofit exists to spread information that can help parents and children prevent sexual abuse.

“We grew up with AOL Instant Messenger and we’ve had Facebook for 10 years so we think we know what’s going on. We shouldn’t be this naive, but we are,” Simeone said.

Simeone explained the subtle nature of online predators can be so complex; a large number of parents have never learned how to deal with it. Parents who encourage kids to use electronics and play games online as a way to entertain or distract them may not realize that puts them at risk for encountering predators if they don’t know what to look for.

Quinn LaViolette, a 22-year-old from Worcester, Massachusetts, told The Daily Universe that as a teenager, she experienced an online friendship with a man in his twenties after becoming a fan of his band.

At the time, she was a cheerleader with plenty of friends. However, she also recalled her internet access was not regulated at all, with her parents not seeing a need to check her internet history. This led to frequent messages with an older man online that she saw as a close friendship.

For LaViolette, the conversations at the time felt platonic in nature. Looking back, she realizes now there were many times when the messages were suggestive. She also said she didn’t see anything wrong with the age gap in their friendship.

“At the time, I thought nothing of it, I just thought it was cool that a member of my favorite band wanted to interact with me and did interact with me so casually,” LaViolette said.

However, conversations can quickly evolve from discussions about music and movies to discussions about personal lives. With that can come venting about school, family and mental health. Before long, some relationships may become emotionally intimate.

Beyond just emotional connections, some predators will ask to meet up in real life. During their friendship, which continued until LaViolette was a freshman in college, the band member gave LaViolette his personal phone number. He even asked her to meet up with him in Boston, which she said never worked out.

Red flags of a predator

The red flags of predators can be complicated to spot. According to Simeone, the subtlety of these behaviors can be so hard to notice that it takes constant vigilance to catch. However, there are still signs that can be monitored by parents and children when online.

Fight the New Drug is a non-religious and non-legislative organization that provides individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using science, facts and personal accounts. According to its research, there are a few things to look out for:

First are flattering comments and behavior. According to Fight the New Drug, this is used to help gain the trust of victims and make them feel important.

Simeone recommended parents teach their children to be reflective about the compliments they receive, who they come from and what the motivations behind them might be.

LaViolette said once she connected with the older man on social media, he would frequently reply to her tweets as well as compliment her on photos of herself. At the time it felt good, but looking back, she realizes it was a major red flag.

Fight the New Drug also points out secret conversations are a way predators learn to keep their victims quiet about what’s going on. Online conversations are often kept away from parents, and children and teens are unlikely to tell their parents about older online friends.

Fight the New Drug also states isolation is a tool many predators use to control victims. Many predators want to take up as much space as possible in a child’s life, resulting in the child becoming detached from friends and family.

“The children who are the most vulnerable are children who don’t feel like they have close connections with physical friends and their families. If they don’t feel like they are loved and don’t have anyone to talk to, internet predators can use that as a lure,” Simeone said.

A growing number of American teenagers – particularly girls – are facing depression

A growing number of American teenagers – particularly girls – are facing depression

A growing number of American teenagers – particularly girls – are facing depression

Depression has become increasingly common among American teenagers – especially teen girls, who are now almost three times as likely as teen boys to have had recent experiences with depression.

In 2017, 13% of U.S. teens ages 12 to 17 (or 3.2 million) said they had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, up from 8% (or 2 million) in 2007, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

One-in-five teenage girls – or nearly 2.4 million – had experienced at least one major depressive episode (the proxy measure of depression used in this analysis) over the past year in 2017. By comparison, 7% of teenage boys (or 845,000) had at least one major depressive episode in the past 12 months.


The total number of teenagers who recently experienced depression increased 59% between 2007 and 2017. The rate of growth was faster for teen girls (66%) than for boys (44%).

While teenage girls are more likely to have faced depression than their male peers, they are also more likely to have received treatment by seeing a professional or taking medication. Among teen girls who had recent depressive episodes, 45% received treatment for depression over the past year. By comparison, 33% of teen boys with recent depressive episodes received treatment.

The number of adults who had experienced depression also increased from 14.8 million in 2007 to 17.3 million in 2017, though the share remained the same (7%). Adults also differed by gender in their experiences with depression (9% of women vs. 5% of men).

Adults who have experienced depression are treated at higher rates than teens. Among adults who had recent depressive episodes, about two-thirds (67%) received treatment. Again, women who had a recent experience with depression (72%) were more likely than men (58%) to receive treatment.

Teens express concern about anxiety and depression among peers, feel day-to-day pressures

Seven-in-ten U.S. teens said anxiety and depression is a major problem among people their age in the community where they live, according to a Pew Research Center survey of teenagers ages 13 to 17 conducted in fall 2018. An additional 26% cited anxiety and depression as a minor problem.

About three-in-ten teens (29%) said they felt tense or nervous about their day every or almost every day, and 45% said they felt tense or nervous sometimes. About a third of teen girls (36%) reported feeling this way every day or almost every day, compared with 23% of teen boys.

Academic and social pressures are among the reasons cited by experts who have studied teen depression. The Center’s survey asked about some of those pressures teens face in their daily lives. About six-in-ten teens (61%) said they personally felt a lot of pressure to get good grades, while roughly three-in-ten reported a lot of pressure to look good and fit in socially (29% and 28%, respectively).

Depression Symptoms in Teens: Why Today’s Teens Are More Depressed Than Ever

Depression Symptoms in Teens: Why Today’s Teens Are More Depressed Than Ever

After a decline in the 1990s, the number of young people that commit suicide has been increasing every year. While no one can explain exactly why, many experts say adolescents and teens today probably face more pressures at home or school, worry about financial issues for their families, and use more alcohol and drugs. “This is a very dangerous time for our young people,” Kathy Harms, a staff psychologist at Kansas City’s Crittenton Children’s Center, told the Portland Press Herald. “We’re seeing more anxiety and depression in children of all ages.”

Why Are So Many Teens Depressed?

Here are some disturbing statistics about teen depression. According to, teen and adolescent suicides have continued to rise dramatically in recent years. Consider these alarming figures:

  • Every 100 minutes a teen takes their own life.
  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.
  • About 20 percent of all teens experience depression before they reach adulthood.
  • Between 10 to 15 percent suffer from symptoms at any one time.
  • Only 30 percent of depressed teens are being treated for it.

Some teens are more at risk for depression and suicide than others. These are known factors:

  • Female teens develop depression twice as often than males.
  • Abused and neglected teens are especially at risk.
  • Adolescents who suffer from chronic illnesses or other physical conditions are at risk.
  • Teens with a family history of depression or mental illness: between 20 to 50 percent of teens suffering from depression have a family member with depression or some other mental disorder.
  • Teens with untreated mental or substance-abuse problems: approximately two-thirds of teens with major depression also battle another mood disorder like dysthymia, anxiety, antisocial behaviors, or substance abuse.
  • Young people who experienced trauma or disruptions at home, including divorce and deaths of parents.

In an article in the Portland Press Herald by Laura Bauer and Mara Rose Williams, experts say teens seem to feel more hopeless than in previous years. Tony Jurich, a professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University, told the newspaper, “Teens think they are invincible, so when they feel psychological pain, they are more apt to feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and the belief that they have no control over their lives.” Jurich calls these feelings of hopelessness and helplessness “the Molotov cocktail that triggers teen suicide.”

A new study led by Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor, finds that five times as many high school and college students are dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues as youth of the same age did that were surveyed back during the era of the Great Depression. Twenge, who is also the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -and More Miserable Than Ever Before, analyzed the responses of over 77,000 college students surveyed from 1938 through 2007.

Are Teens Today Unprepared for Life’s Challenges?

Some of the experts believe that we have raised our teens to have unrealistic expectations. Along with the messages from modern media sources that suggest that we should always feel good, they say many parents haven’t taught their kids the kind of coping skills they need to survive in chaotic times.

Why are Today’s Teens So Stressed Out?

“In my opinion, it’s all of the above and more,” writes Therese J. Borchard, author of Beyond Blue. “Most experts would agree with me that there is more stress today than in previous generations. Stress triggers depression and mood disorders, so that those who are predisposed to it by their creative wiring or genes are pretty much guaranteed some symptoms of depression at the confusing and difficult time of adolescence. I think modern lifestyles -lack of community and family support, less exercise, no casual and unstructured technology-free play, less sunshine and more computer -factors into the equation.”

Addressing the mental health of today’s teens

Addressing the mental health of today’s teens

The pandemic has left the world’s teenagers more stressed and anxious than ever, challenging both their mental health and well-being. For help navigating these mental and emotional waters, we turned to Courtney L. Washington, PsyD, CSYAC, HSPP, clinical training director, Park Center, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute, for some much-needed advice and guidance for parents wanting to help.

What effect has the pandemic had on teens’ mental health?

The pandemic significantly impacted everyone’s mental health, causing increased levels of anxiety and nervousness. We all saw and/or experienced a lot of social isolation during this past year when stuck in our homes, unable to connect with each other, beyond a screen, on a basic human level. This separation can and did lead to higher levels of depression. Individuals could also experience the effects of trauma, which involves an increased hyper-vigilance and concern for people’s safety, simply because of how unsafe everyone has felt over the last 18 months.

What are some signs a teenager may be suffering from a mental disorder?

First, it’s important to keep in mind that psychiatric disorders look a bit different in children and teens than in adults. With that said, anytime you notice a general change in your child’s demeanor or functioning, outside of what’s typical for them, it’s critical that you pay attention to it.

For example, we often think of someone with depression as isolated, sad, withdrawn, tearful or crying. However, with teenagers, depression looks a bit different. Many adolescents’ depressive expressions can include aggression, acting out, talking back and defiance. You may even notice some children getting fixated or preoccupied with certain things like talking about the same thing over and over or worrying about germs and washing their hands. These could all be signs of anxiety disorders in teens and young adults.

It’s no secret that teenagers love to sleep, but when is it an indication of something more?

We sometimes see teenagers as defiant, lazy, or attribute their behaviors to their development, but that’s often not the case. Remember, any significant behavior change is usually an indication that something’s happening. Moreover, any shifts in their regulatory system like their sleep-wake cycles (oversleeping/unable to sleep) or changes in their food intake (overeating/under eating) is usually a symptom of something more. If parents or caregivers notice any of these, it’s vital that they check in with their teen and possibly follow up with a doctor or a mental health practitioner.

How can parents and caregivers go about addressing their concerns with their teen?

There are several different things parents and caregivers can do. Ideally, the first step they should take is to simply talk to their children – ask them questions and be sure to provide them with a safe space to share. In most cases, adolescents want to open up but often don’t feel heard in these situations. Usually, as adults, we think we have a plethora of worldly advice to offer, and sometimes we do, but that often overshadows what many teenagers might want or need to share.

I also think it’s developmentally crucial for children and teenagers to see their parents or caregivers struggle sometimes and be genuine about difficult things. Now, this doesn’t mean that parents and caregivers should rely on their children for emotional support because that’s not an appropriate boundary. However, it is acceptable for them to see you feeling sad or struggling while openly letting them know you are having a hard time. This helps illustrate how you deal and cope with challenging situations and that they are a natural part of life.

What other measures can parents take to help their teen navigate mental health challenges?

As previously mentioned, opening the lines of communication and having frequent conversations or check-ins about what’s happening in their life is the biggest step. It’s also important to be as honest and transparent as possible with them. If they’re not ready or willing to talk to you, try seeking additional professional assistance, or looping in another meaningful adult like a favorite grandparent, aunt or uncle. As long as they’re talking to someone, that’s what matters. Research shows that kids should have at least one meaningful adult relationship in their life to help keep them on a positive path.

The key to a happy teen? Listen and support — and resist solving problems for them.

In a new book, two experts advise parents on how to talk to their teenagers in ways that foster closeness and help them cope with adversity on their own.

You’ve probably heard that to raise a successful person, you need to allow your child, especially adolescents, to have autonomy. That if you micromanage everything, they won’t learn how to do it themselves and thus won’t thrive later in life.

You’ve probably heard that to raise a successful person, you need to allow your child, especially adolescents, to have autonomy. That if you micromanage everything, they won’t learn how to do it themselves and thus won’t thrive later in life.

But how do you actually do that? William Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist, and Ned Johnson, founder of test-preparation company PrepMatters, have a new book out that aims to answer all of that. “What Do You Say? How to Talk With Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance and a Happy Home,” builds on their last bestseller, “The Self-Driven Child.” They break down how each parent can be a non-anxious parent-consultant, rather than a parent-boss, and ways to help kids be truly happy as they grow and head into the world.

Stixrud says that one of the wisest things he has heard about adolescents is that “Every day, when they come home from school, you can see who they’re deciding to be.” Here, they give advice on helping your child to become who they really are. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How has the pandemic affected kids’ motivation and stress tolerance, and how should parents pivot to deal with their teens?

WS: The kids who are introverted, hated getting up for the bus — for a lot of kids it’s been a pretty good thing for them and for their families. Nationally, you see a significant increase in depression and anxiety, but these were increasing dramatically before the pandemic.

NJ: We know that kids from wealthy families are at an even greater risk than those stretched thin, in part because of an intense pressure to excel. And these kids don’t feel as close to their parents. It’s really helpful if parents take the long view and recognize that the emotional resilience we so want for our kids [can be achieved by] adversity with support. We’ve had so much adversity; let’s do everything we can to support our kids — not to get the highest GPA, but to be able to cope.

You write about the importance of making our home the place where our kids can feel that connection with us. How?

WS: Parents need to validate [kids’] feelings, treat them respectfully, and not try to solve their problems for them. The practice of listening more than talking: “I’m trying to understand you, and here’s what I’m hearing.” Home should be a safe base where after a stressful day, they know you don’t criticize them, that you understand them. We don’t want our kids to say: “I got a C, but don’t tell my parents!” We want them to feel safe enough to bring their problems to us.

The Life-Changing Magic Of Having “Good Parents”

The Life-Changing Magic Of Having “Good Parents”

One day, when I was a teenager, my mom and I were driving down the highway listening to a playlist I’d made on my iPod, moving easily from one conversation topic to another, as we always did — and still do. This wasn’t a particularly special day; it was just another day for us — we were always going on drives or taking road trips together. On this day, though, she suddenly looked at me, and said that she wished she’d had moments like this as a daughter. She said she could never have imagined going on drives with her mother, enjoying music together and talking like friends. She didn’t mean it in a “you should be grateful for your life” kind of way, because she’s never been that person. She was just wistful. It was the first time I consciously reflected on the idea that maybe the way my parents treated me, and the way we related to each other, was not the way they had known their own parents — and they weren’t alone.

Honestly? I’m not sure who I would be if my parents had been different and if our relationship to one another hadn’t been what it was. Maybe I would still essentially be me. But would the trajectory of my life, the road to finding peace and contentment with who I am and where I am, have been a lot bumpier?

It’s hard to make sweeping statements or what-ifs about my life. Obviously, there are plenty of great, happy adults who had bad parents. There are also awful, unhappy adults who had good parents. It’s not something you can tell just by talking to someone, and that relative invisibility is partly why I want to talk about it, because, just like generational wealth, having good parents is a kind of hidden privilege. It’s not a privilege in the sense that people who have good parents should feel like they’ve gotten something over and above what they deserve, as could be said about, say, inheriting a massive trust fund. But while every child should have caretakers who love and support them unconditionally, it’s still a privilege in that it’s a big leg-up in life. And, unlike with a large inheritance, having good parents is the kind of benefit that you might carry around unwittingly, or giving much thought to how hard things might be if shittier people had raised you, something over which you’ve never had any control. While we choose friends, partners, other significant people in our lives as adults, our parents, of course, are a life-changing roll of the dice.

Of course, even though my parents are good, they are also imperfect people, just as I’m their imperfect daughter. Growing up, I went through peaks and valleys in my relationships with both of them, and there was plenty of fighting. When the three of us — I’m an only child — are under the same roof, we still fight, round robin-style so no one feels left out. They don’t have flawless personalities or always make the right decisions. But, having a serene, easy relationship isn’t the only criteria I’m using for good parenting. So, what makes a good parent a good parent, then?

According to psychotherapist Dr. Dana Dorfman, it’s not about saying and doing the objectively right thing every single time. In fact it’s not something that can be fully intellectualized at all — instead, she describes what good parenting might feel like to a child. “Almost through the cells of their body, they’re taking in the experience of being loved, being appreciated, of being nurtured, of being supported, of being soothed,” she says. It creates an aura of safety, the emotional equivalent of being wrapped in a snug blanket. And, it lasts.

In fact, it’s the unconditional aspect of this kind of love that’s the reason why I’ve never worried that my parents’ support for me could be dimmed by something I did or didn’t do, for example. Even through our worst, angriest fights, the ones where I — being a typical teenager — vowed that I would never speak to them again, it never occurred to me that they might withdraw a fraction of their affection if I kept up my rebellion. Conditional love, on the other hand, dangles affection and respect like a carrot on a stick in exchange for the “correct” behaviour. It’s a love so contingent on externalities that it provides no security at all.

The pain and impact of conditional love can be significant, explains Dorfman. You might internalize that “your true authentic self is not lovable, not acceptable,” she says. “A lot of times people just hide parts of themselves — but those parts of themselves need expression. [Hiding it] can only be sustained for so long. It increases the chances greatly that they will experience anxiety, depression, [and] physical symptoms.”

One of the major behavioural science “breakthroughs” of the mid-20th century was psychologist Harry Harlow’s work in showing that baby rhesus monkeys crave comfort and affection from their caretakers, not just food. It might seem obvious today, but the prevailing school of thought when Harlow began his research was that affection wasn’t necessary in child-rearing, and that, in fact, too much could produce weak, overdependent children. The thinking was that babies attached to their mothers solely because mothers gave them food, and not because parents provided essential comfort. Harlow’s experiments, showing that the baby monkeys preferred the company of fake mothers covered in soft cloth who didn’t offer food over fake mothers made of wire who did offer food, were instrumental in the shifting view of parental affection — a social change for human babies achieved through cruelty to young monkeys, who were deprived of affection and socialization and in many cases became depressed.