This post is sponsored by Thorn and all opinions expressed are my own.
*Trigger Warning: Discussion of grooming, minor safety, & trafficking.
Thorn for Parents is an online resource hub to help parents have earlier, more frequent, and judgment-free conversations with kids about digital safety. Visit parents.thorn.org for free digestible, supportive, and actionable resources to start the dialogue with your children today.
I was sixteen and the internet was new. I was young and naive, although I didn’t think so at the time. I was also attention starved. Despite being outgoing and talkative, I couldn’t seem to find a groove I fit in. Too loud, too awkward, too much. I had a few close friends, mostly outcasts and “too muches” like myself.
I liked to pretend I chose not to befriend many people in my high school. Truth was, I was lonely and a little bitter about it.
Instead, I found companionship on the internet. This was the peak of the AOL chat room. It was in a chat room dedicated to dogs where I first met screenname XdblX. He liked German shepherds just like me. He was also a local. How cool! A World Wide Web and I found a fellow dog lover just a town over.
Soon, XdblX invited me to a private chat on AIM. There I discovered his IRL name was Dave. Turns out we shared a lot more interests. Dave loved the same music, Star Trek, books, and obscure trivia. More important than any of that was he genuinely cared about what I had to say. About anything. He paid attention to me.
Dave and I logged on every evening. He started adding little <3 to the end of every sentence. He admitted with was a bit older than me but I didn’t care. I went from outcast to catching the interest of an “older man”. How exotic and mature of me, I thought.
When he asked me for a pic, I sent him a painfully fuzzy shot I’d harvested from MySpace. That satiated him for a few days. But then he wanted another. The next day I convinced a classmate to use hers and snap a new pic of me. That wasn’t the kind of pic he wanted.
<I want something I can use for…other things> he typed in chat.
<What other things> I replied
Oh. Ooooohhh. That kind of pic. He wanted a pic of my boobs. I definitely didn’t have pics of those. And I certainly couldn’t ask any of my camera wielding classmates to take one.
<I don’t have a camera to take one> came my response.
<We could meet up. Go on a real date. I could see the real thing.>
I sat, stunned. Did Dave just ask to meet me for real? That was unexpected. The one rule my mom had set for me was never meet anyone from the internet. “They could be bad people who want bad things. And it’s easy to lie on the internet.” That was the entirety of my internet safety talk. But surely Dave wasn’t one of those bad people. He made me feel special. He appreciated me and my too muchness. Dave was good people. I replied;
<OK. Sure. What do you want to do?>
We made arrangements to meet up at the dollar movie theater conveniently between us. It was on the sketchy side of town but I had a car and a still warm license. I could make it happen.
<But come alone. I want our first date to be special.>
I don’t know what or why but this triggered something in me. Why wouldn’t I have come alone for a date? I had not dated much by sixteen but I’d watched enough movies to know not to bring a friend on the first date.
So I brought a friend to our date. A girl from choir, Lizzy, also active in AOL chat rooms agreed to go. Since Dave knew what I looked like but I’d never bothered to ask for his pic, we decided to meet at the north corner of the building. I hadn’t known at the time, but the north corner was technically around the back of the building by the dumpsters. As Lizzy and I walked toward the meeting point, she grabbed my hand.
“Gwenna this is horror movie stuff. We need to go.”
“What? No. He just didn’t know the north corner was the dumpster corner. It’s fine.”
As I spoke, a man easily in his forties rounded the corner.
“Gwenna?” Given that he knew my name I assumed this was Dave. But he was old. And he sounded mad. Furious, even.
“Dave? Hi!” I wanted to feel excited but between Lizzy’s sudden stop and refusal to move forward and Dave’s weird anger, all the first date jitters drained out, my instincts finally kicking in.
“Gwenna, goddammit, I told you to come alone.” Lizzy turned to run. It took me less then half a second to decide I wanted to run too.
That was not a first date. He’d been grooming me.
After I’d disobeyed him and brought a friend, XdblX never logged back on to our private AIM conversation.
I can only guess what would have happened if I hadn’t brought Lizzy with me, if she had gotten spooked a moment later, if we hadn’t been quicker than a 40-something man with a beer gut. None of my guesses are pleasant.
Now as an adult, I look at that story with new eyes. And new fears. There were a lot of signs of grooming. Glaringly obvious red flags I never noticed until after the fact. The worst part was, my mom never knew. I never told her I was talking to an older man, that we’d entered into some quasi-romantic relationship over chat, that I agreed to meet him in person. She never knew and now with kids of my own, that’s the part of this whole story that really gnaws at me.
To be fair to my mom, the internet was new to all of us. Google was only three years old when someone attempted to groom me. There were no resources for parents, or how-to guides for kids to avoid being lured and trapped. We weren’t inventing the internet in 2000. But we were creating internet culture. There was a lot of trial and error.
Now my own children are inheriting an internet that is somehow more defined, slightly more predictable, and yet infinitely more frightening. There are still Dave’s on the internet. And as we’ve gotten better at spotting the red flags, they’ve gotten better at hiding them. As a mom, it’s difficult to know how to talk to my kids about internet safety. I want them to have access to the endless knowledge and global community but I want them to be safe doing it. YouTube kids and keyword filters can only do so much and work for so long.
How do I help my kids determine the difference between risky relationships and positive ones? This is the new “Stranger Danger.” It isn’t big white vans and men with candy anymore. It is as innocuous as a friendly looking avatar on social media.
These conversations now must begin earlier as kids are getting involved in internet culture and existing in cyberspaces younger and younger. With online classes, our children are more a part of the internet than their parents ever were. We don’t have to wait for the right time or some trigger event. We can get ahead of the bad people doing bad things.
Thankfully, this isn’t 2000. We were kids with too much power then. Now we are parents with a whole new level of internet experience and a wealth of resources. Resources like Thorn for Parents. Thorn for Parents isn’t a one stop shop or a fix-all filter. It is a starting point for a healthy conversation about the internet, the platforms, the devices your child uses, and what to do about sexting, nudes, and other things we wish we didn’t have to think about but need to talk about.
My mom never knew how close I came to a very different existence. I barely knew. But my kids get to have a different experience. I get to pave the way for a healthy, safe relationship with the internet, being realistic about the opportunities and open about the dangers.
Thorn for Parents is my first stop. Please head to parents.thorn.org to begin those same digital safety conversations with your children.
Thorn is a technology non-profit dedicated to defending children from online sexual exploitation. Visit parents.thorn.org for more resources on how to navigate your
children’s online experiences safely.