Some international news sources have recently posted about a disturbing “game” popping up on social media called the Blue Whale Challenge.  The game is described as a 50-day challenge during which teens complete a series of risky, dangerous tasks with the final challenge being for the participant to commit suicide. Reports indicate the tasks also include sitting on the edge of a roof, as well as watching horror movies and waking up at uncommon hours.

The challenge is believed to have resulted in deaths both in Russia and in Spain, but these reports have not actually been verified. Police in France issued an alert for teens and parents on their verified twitter account however that, translated, is a poster that reads in part, ‘don’t allow yourself to be influenced.  The game is not worth risking your life”.

As a precaution however, schools in the US are taking notice and alerting parents to this potential deadly threat.  The Blue Whale challenge is not an open hashtag, however, which means that parents can’t necessarily search their child’s accounts for it. It takes place underground where game masters send participants tasks.

What parents can do is monitor their child’s online activity and conversations and notice any change in their behavior.  Additionally, if the frequency of their online activity changes it could mean they’ve set up new accounts.

It’s also important to recognize signs of depression and suicide which could include:

  1. Loss of interest in daily activities
  2. Feelings of helplessness
  3. Changes in attitude

If your teen or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

sextortationI frequently blog about cyberbullying and most parents now have a pretty good understanding of that threat.  But when I mention “sextortion” they have no idea what I’m talking about.  No, this is not some new sex position to try out.  This is the latest very real and growing threat to our kids online.

Sextortion is a form of online sexual exploitation in which non-physical forms of coercion are utilized, such as blackmail, to acquire sexual content (photos/videos) of the child, obtain money from the child or engage in sex with the child.

Unlike situations where a teen chooses to send nude pictures of her/himself to a boyfriend or a girlfriend, in these instances the victim send pics out of fear that the perpetrator will harm a member of the family or has embarrassing information that he threatens to reveal.  Unfortunately, once the photos are sent, the victim is trapped in a cycle of abuse and blackmail.

Usually the victim is a girl (78% of the time) between the ages of 8 and 17.  Yes, I said 8!!!!  And oftentimes the perpetrator is targeting numerous girls.

The Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, has released a series of PSA’s that show how a teen was blackmailed into sending more and more explicit images and video to someone online who she thought she knew.

While this might be an uncomfortable topic to bring up with your child it’s important.  Too often I hear parents say that since their child doesn’t know about sex or would never post a photo of herself it’s not worth discussing.  WRONG!!!!!  Even if your daughter doesn’t have a SnapChat, Instagram, Kik, YikYak or some other social media account chances are one of her friends does.  Does she have a phone? Does she know how to text? Then the possibility exists of her being a victim of sextortion.

As per the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, here are several ways in which sextortion can occur:

  • Threatening to post previously acquired sexual content online (71%); and
  • Threatening to post previously acquired sexual content online specifically for family and friends to see (29%).
  • Some other tactics include:
    • Reciprocation, whereby the offender coerced the child into providing sexual content by promising reciprocity
    • Developing a bond with the child through flattery and praise
    • Secretly recording sexually explicit videos of the child during video chats
    • Using multiple online identities against a given child, such as being the person blackmailing for sexual content as well as pretending to be a supportive friend to the child or a sympathetic victim of the same offender
    • Pretending to be younger and/or a female
    • Threatening to physically hurt or sexually assault the child or their family
    • Threatening to create sexual content of the child using digital-editing tools
    • Accessing the child’s account without authorization and stealing sexual content of the child
    • Threatening to commit suicide if the child does not provide sexual content
    • Creating a fake profile as the child and posting sexual content of the child
    • Pretending to be a modeling agent to obtain sexual content of the child
    • Threatening to post sexually explicit conversations with the child online

Be sure that you are constantly monitoring your child’s social media accounts and texts.  Install monitoring software to receive alerts for select content or images.  Watch for changes in your child’s behavior and talk to her friends – chances are if there’s a problem they know about it.

If you find text threads or posts, do not delete them! Immediately contact law enforcement.

 

 

ATTSmartDisclaimer – I have a material and/or financial connection because I received a gift, sample of a product and/or compensation for consideration in preparing to write this content. All opinions stated within are my own.

I think we can all agree that technology is a blessing and a curse.  As a divorced mom I needed my kids to have a phone to keep in touch with me.  And, as a national family safety expert, I also want them to be able to contact me from school if there’s ever an emergency.  The flip side to this however is the irritation I feel when I end up talking to the top of their heads when they’re engrossed in their phone and the concern of “textual harassment” and cyberbullying.  Since I pay for their phone I want some ability to manage how and when they use it and also who they talk to.  And that’s exactly what AT&T’s Smart Limits allows me to do.

I’ll tell you right now, your kids are going to HATE this!  Here’s a few of the great things I can do with Smart Limits:

I control when she is able to use her phone and who she talks to

Rather than deal with having a basket to collect phones when they come home, simply turn them off.  NOTE: If there is an emergency you can allow certain numbers to get through and she can call out to pre-approved numbers including 911.

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Are there certain people you don’t want your child to speak with or is someone bullying her?  Simply block the number.  Create a trusted contact list of phone numbers she can call.

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No more surprise charges for purchased apps, music or games

How many times have you been hit with some unexpected charge on your bill only to find out your daughter downloaded the new Taylor Swift album or a Dance Moms app?  You set limits on the amount of money she can spend and block data as well.

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 You can view all activity

One of the best things is the e-mail I receive every Monday morning which gives me a summary of my daughter’s activity for the previous week.  Without this I probably would get lazy about checking in on her activity but when it’s pushed to me there’s no excuse not to open the e-mail and give it a quick glance.  I also have it set up so I’m immediately alerted when she’s added a new contact number or if someone new has contacted her.

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AT&T’s Smart Limits is the easiest way I’ve found to control what my daughter does when she’s on her phone and gives me peace of mind that at least she’s not being bullied on her phone.

You can check out Smart Limits here and keep in mind, when you download it from this site you get to check it out for 30 days for free but you DO NOT get the free 30-day trial if you download via iOS

 

kateIntroducing our new intern, Kate! I’m convinced that it’s impossible for adults to understand what really goes on in the minds of teens.  Yet they desperately want to be understood.  So, I’m so excited to announce the addition of our intern Kate to the Safety Mom team!  Kate is a junior in high school and loves writing.  Her dream is to work with the FBI as a criminal profiler someday.  Kate will be blogging for us and giving the teen perspective on everything from bullying to academic pressure and everything in between. At school, at work, sometimes even at home. Thousands of people a day get bullied for how they look, how they talk, the way they walk, the beliefs they have and any other things that a bully can think of. Bullies are everywhere and unfortunately we can never completely get away from them and ignoring what they say is a lot harder than parents think. Most teens don’t like to talk about bullying with their parents. They think their parents will be embarrassed because bullying, to a teen, is like saying, “Hey Mom and Dad, I’m not perfect.” Every child wants to make his or her parents proud more than anything and when they are being bullied, when people are making fun of their qualities, it makes them feel like a disappointment. Teens also don’t tell their parents if they are getting bullied because they don’t want to run to anyone, especially their parents, for help.  They no longer consider themselves children and want to handle things on their own. Another big reason teens don’t confide in their parents is that they don’t want them to hover.  When a mom hears that her teen is being bullied, it’s a natural inclination to check in every day to make sure her daughter isn’t considering or already harming herself. Asking her about the bullying every single day when she gets home, making her share her social media website, constantly checking up on her and never leaving her alone for fear she might harm herself are all the things a teen does not want her parents doing! Even though parents believe they are helping by watching their child’s every move, it actually makes a teen feel more vulnerable and worsens the situation. Teens desperately want to work it out on their own. Here’s what a parent can do to help their teen who is being bullied:

  • Simply talk to your teen. Ask her, the first time you hear about the bullying, what you can do to help or whether she even wants your help. Maybe all she wants is to talk to someone who won’t answer with the frustrating words, “Ignore it.”
  • Remind her that all bullies are the same. They are all bitter, insecure people that don’t have anyone to talk to so they take their anger out on other people. The same names they call the boy/girl they are bullying, they have probably been called by someone else.
  • Reassure her that there will always be someone to talk to like a family member, school counselor or close friend.
  • Let her know that she can’t always be strong and shake it off but that’s okay, she isn’t made of tin, she has a heart. Remind her to do what makes her happy because in the end, that’s what matters.

No matter what, things will always turn around and nothing bad lasts forever. Ten years from now, the bullies won’t matter.

meangirlsWe’re all familiar with “mean girl” bullying – the subtle put-downs, gossiping and condescending glances that are the hallmarks.  Unfortunately I’m not referring to teens, I’m talking about the moms.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day (let’s call her Ms. C) and she was relating how upset she was over some comments made by another “friend” regarding her tennis ability.  Seems this “friend” felt the need to point out that she was surprised Ms. C wasn’t better at her game given how often she plays.  She then went on to complain to Ms. C that their instructor was adding more players to their group and she was upset that these less-than-stellar players would be playing with them.

Sound like a bunch of high school cheerleaders?  You betcha.  And of course I wouldn’t be surprised if this woman’s daughter was saying the exact same thing about her fellow cheerleaders at school.  The old saying “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” couldn’t be more accurate when it comes to mean-girl bullying.

Whether it’s about a girl’s fashion choices, physical appearance, amount of money or status her family has, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, there’s always something the mean girls can find to attack in not-so-subtle ways.

I’ve learned this first-hand over the past year or so. After a nasty divorce from an emotionally and verbally abusive man who has made it his mission to spread inaccuracies in a seemingly rational manner, I’ve learned that people love juicy gossip and will draw conclusions without questioning facts.  This has led to some women in my very small town to make some pretty nasty comments to my face and behind my back.  My 9 year-old has witnessed this and it upsets her greatly.  Personally, I’ve developed a thick skin (usually) but I worry how the children of these women will treat my daughter now that school has begun.

How can we expect teenage girls to have tolerance for people’s differences when their parents, for whatever reason, are the role models for this behavior?  Whether it’s out of envy, boredom, jealousy, bigotry or just plain stupidity, these girls are learning that the best way to make themselves feel better is to diminish everyone around them.

So how do we teach our girls to stand-up against this behavior?  Once again, I guess the answer starts at home.  We need to choose to eliminate “toxic” people from our circle of friends.  If someone isn’t going to support us and make us feel good about ourselves then they have no purpose in our lives.  If we hear gossip from a friend, we need to question the motive and understand that we never know the entire story (what goes on behind closed doors and all that.)  And, when someone is being insulted or put down, it’s our job to question the “mean-girl”and not be a silent witness.

If mean-girl behavior can be learned so can strength of character.

If Your Child Commits a Murder or Bullies Someone to Death, You Belong In Jail!

I’m fed up and ticked off beyond belief!  I just read a news article about a young teacher in Massachusetts who was brutally murdered by a 14-year old student at the school. This follows the death of a teacher in Nevada, a brave vet who survived two tours of duty only to be killed by a student in his school.  And let’s not forget the numerous slayings of other innocent victims by teens – Newtown and Columbine to just name few.  While the cause of death for Rebecca Sedwick down in Florida was suicide, it was brought about by two other teens, aged  12 and 14, who were  relentless in their bullying, posted “Drink bleach and die” followed by “You haven’t killed yourself yet, go jump off a building.”

Thank God for the sheriff down in Florida who finally took a stand and not only arrested the girls but is trying to bring charges against the parents.  The parents in Nevada of the school shooter are also potentially facing charges.

It’s about time that parents start being held accountable for their children’s actions, especially when it involves mass shootings, bullying and other depraved behavior.   Children are minors, they are in our care.  They don’t come out of the womb evil – they are taught this and exposed to brutality at home.  What happened to parents being parents?  When did adults become bystanders to their child’s actions? Here’s a thought – IF YOUR CHILD KILLS SOMEONE OR TORMENTS THEM TO THE POINT THAT THEY KILL THEMSELVES, YOU SHOULD BE RESPONSIBLE! By the time they enter school they should know right from wrong.  They should know the basic principal that killing is not only illegal but immoral.  If you, as a parent, haven’t instilled this basic concept in your child, you’ve FAILED as a parent!

The other day I had a dad e-mail me.  He didn’t know what to do as his 11 year-old daughter had “hacked around” the software controls he had installed on her phone and she was sending photos and texts that he did not approve of.  He wanted to know what other software was out there that might be a bit more “bullet proof.”  I advised him that, software is not what’s needed.  What should be done is that her phone is taken away!

Parents, it’s time to “man-up.” If your child is out of control, start looking in the mirror for the answer as to why.  You’re not a victim, you’re child’s not a victim.  Your child’s a cold-blooded killer and you made him or her that way.

love-is-not-abuseSexting, sexual harassment and domestic violence are all, in one form or another abuse.  It cuts across all demographics and, when it comes to prominent figures, can be shrugged off as an “addiction.”  What’s most troubling is, in the era of public apologies and subsequent forgiveness, the victims also seem to forgive and forget too quickly.  It’s all too common for abuse victims to return to the relationship several times before they finally break the cycle.

Yesterday I read that former TV Anchor Rob Morrison and his wife Ashley are back together.  This comes only a few months after a domestic violence incident where Rob allegedly choked Ashley while he was intoxicated.   Rob is participating in court-mandated therapy and Ashley is apparently telling some friends “the incident never happened.”  While this very well may be the case, it’s extremely common for abuse victims to recant their stories and even defend the abuser.

Coincidentally a survey also was released yesterday about the prevalence of teen dating abuse.  The findings were pretty incredible – more than a third of teen guys and girls say they’ve been physically, emotionally or sexually abused in their dating relationships, according to new, unpublished data from a nationwide survey. Similar numbers of both sexes say they’ve been abusers. Also, the teens who abuse their girlfriends and boyfriends often share a past as middle-school bullies.  What I found most surprising was that the group of people who contact the National Dating Abuse Helpline the most are 13-16 year olds.  Through this research, it is becoming increasingly clear that dating violence is occurring at a younger age than most people think.

Break the Cycle is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending dating abuse and engaging everyone in promoting health relationships.  Their website offers an abundance of information regarding dating violence:

There are many warning signs of dating violence that are important to keep in mind for yourself or a family member or friend.  If you notice any of these warning signs in your relationship or in someone else’s, be aware that these may lead to dating violence:

  1. Checking your cell phone or email without permission.
  2. Constant put-downs.
  3. Extreme jealousy or insecurity.
  4. Explosive temper.
  5. Isolating you from family or friends.
  6. Making false accusations.
  7. Mood swings.
  8. Physically hurting you in any way.
  9. Possessiveness.
  10. Telling you what to do.

 

It is important to constantly promote safe and healthy relationships at any age. Break The Cycle lists five things that YOU can do to help:

One: Get the Facts 

Do you know the warning signs of dating violence and the legal rights available to young people in your state? Well — find out!

Two: Start Talking About Healthy Relationships

Talk with your kids. Your family. Your friends. Your neighbors and your schools.
Because it’s never too late to talk about dating abuse.

Three: Speak Out

Use our Valentine’s Anytime Kit to raise awareness in your community. Ask your local media to cover your efforts!

Four: Share Your Status

Join us on Facebook and Twitter and help promote our message that “love has many definitions — but abuse isn’t one of them!”

Five: Be an Advocate

Visit your local school and urge them to implement prevention programs and school policies vital to the positive growth of their students. Write to your elected officials to support VAWA!

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-866-331-9474.  You can also contact 24-hour help by online chat (at loveisrespect.org), or text (text “loveis” to 22522)

A scandal is erupting in Rye, NY.  Last week, three high-school juniors were arrested for a hazing  incident involving several eight-grade students, one of whom was hurt so badly he ended up in the hospital.  All three are being charged as adults for hazing and unlawful imprisonment after brutally paddling the younger kids as part of a ritual.

Cellphone video captured the alleged incident where the three kidnapped several teens, forced them into a car and drove them to a wildlife conservancy. There they proceeded to “paddle the freshman  multiple times with a large piece of lumber, causing bruising and other injuries to their buttocks and legs,” police said.

While hazing in college is bad enough, hazing in high school?!  In my mind, hazing is absolutely no different than bullying. And, just like bullying, the greatest concern lies in the reactions to this incident.  Parents are quoted as “being shocked that something like that could happen in their town.”  (Read – denial) Kids are quoted as saying  “it’s a ritual and a rite of passage.” (Read – acceptance) School officials were quick to respond that “there is no such ritual, it’s an isolated incident.”  (Read – rejection)

Sound familiar?  How often do we say that these things could never possibly happen here?  And, even if they did, well then, certainly our child wouldn’t be involved.  So we won’t get involved or look at the issue and then we can pretend it doesn’t exist.

Bullying, drugs, abuse…. it happens in every town at every socio-economic level.   We need to recognize that yes, these problems can and will happen in our community and get proactive about dealing with them rather than waiting for something to happen.   What’s more,  the belief that “kids will be kids” or “this is the way it always was” needs to stop. Social media has taken bullying to a new level.  Prescription drug abuse and the street drugs are deadlier than they used to be. Distracted driving continues to climb. These dangers weren’t around when we were young.