Should you let your child meet their Internet friend?

Mom/Dad, can I go meet my Internet friend in person?

To be absolutely-100%-embarrassingly-so-honest, my gut reaction to this question would be “No!! What if it’s some creep! Or a scammer!! What if they kidnap you!! Or worse! Don’t you know how dangerous that is?!?!?!”

But, of course, I know this question warrants a lot more consideration than my intuitive reply.

So hold on, let’s start over.

Should you let your child meet their Internet friend in person?

According to a UNH study, 16 percent of teens have considered meeting someone they’ve only talked to online and 8 percent have actually met someone they only knew online.

First of all, recognize that your child trusts and respects you enough to ask for your permission rather than simply sneaking out and meeting them behind your back. If they’re asking, this already shows that you’re doing a pretty good job openly communicating with them and building a healthy parent-child relationship. (So kudos to you!)

Instead of bursting out with a “No!! Of course not!!!” and rambling about the many dangers online, express interest in your child’s relationship with their Internet friend. Ask them how they met, what they have in common, where and why they want to meet, etc. But the most important thing is that you ask these questions as a parent. That means no interrogating your child! Don’t bombard them frantically with questions or make them feel that they’ve done something wrong. This is going to cause them to clam up or get defensive, and that’s the last thing you want! Your child wants to meet a new friend; express genuine interest and consider their request seriously!

Parents tend to have their doubts about online friendships because they have different ideas of what socializing should look like. Many of us, myself included, grew up going out to the movies, the park, the skating rink, etc. with a bunch of our friends. Sometimes, our friend’s friends would tag along, and we would meet them then, and our friend circles would grow from person-to-person contact.

However, with the rapid onset of digital technology and online social platforms, socializing has taken on a completely new context. Our children may enjoy many of the same things as we did when we were young (my son, for example, is definitely an avid movie-goer), but they also like sharing, chatting, and gaming online.

We parents tend to be less comfortable with all this “digital socializing” because we may not be as familiar with this kind of culture. We can’t help but worry that when these online relationships escalate to real-life ones, our children will somehow end up hanging out with dangerous “strangers.”

Trust me, you’re not the only one with this fear. As parents, we want to protect our kids wherever they go, including online. And we can’t help but imagine every possible thing that can go wrong at this potential meetup.

Most online relationships, made through gaming, for example, stay online. However, in some cases, your child may form a special bond with someone online because of shared interests outside of the original platform/game. Maybe they both have a passion for dogs and indie music (and also hate math). There’s nothing wrong with finding common interests and forming friendships online. Though it can be tempting sometimes, don’t ever treat your child’s online friendship as anything less than a real one.

If your child brings up wanting to meet their online friend for the first time, we advise that you accompany them at least for the first visit or two, and meet in a public place. It may also set your conscience at ease by asking to speak with the friend’s parents as well, so you can both discuss when and where your children are meeting. Who knows, you might end up finding a friend in them as well!

Our children’s lives will be full of strangers, so perhaps it’s time to change the whole “stranger danger” mentality. Rather, it’s our responsibility to teach our children how to have healthy and safe interactions with strangers, and how to be able to make quick judgments about whether the person is genuine or not.

Instead of just telling your kids to “stay away from strangers,” or “no you can’t meet them!,” teach them the safety skills and background check process they should go through before deciding to meet up with someone. Thank them for coming to you first, and keep an open mind about the meeting even if your immediate reaction is to say no.

In the end, you have the authority as a parent, and you may choose to say no. However, whatever the decision, take this as an opportunity to have a serious conversation about online safety with your child. Remember that the skills that you teach your children now about meeting online friends are the same skills they will use when they go off to college and meet new friends, interview for jobs, and network with “strangers” in the future. So think about it!

Additional resource: Parents’ Guide to Online Safety