A Parents' Guide to Online Contacts and Relationships

Online Relationships and Dating

What's the risk?

With multiplayer games, social media, and interactive video streaming services, it is becoming increasingly common for children and teens to form relationships with people they meet online. These relationships can vary from friendship, companionship, romance, and even those based on educational or business opportunities. 

Even though most of these interactions are harmless, they are often perceived and described as risky by the community and researchers alike. It’s important to note that relationships formed online are not inherently ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’ (in fact, research shows that there are some notable benefits concerning learning, collaboration, and connection), but they do present some risks, particularly when we throw a lack of understanding and emotionally charged decision making into the mix. Some of the key concerns for kids and teens communicating with strangers online are grooming, catfishing, or unhealthy relationships.

What age is most vulnerable?

The risks vary by age and the nature of online platforms and activities in which kids and teens participate. It is not uncommon for children as young as eight to be playing multiplayer games such as Minecraft, Roblox, or Fortnite. While their ability to connect and communicate with others varies by game and in-platform controls, many children are gaming with strangers. As children approach the age of 13 and navigate to social media platforms, they again broaden their social network to incorporate audience members and form friendships (yes, even romantic ones) with people they have not met in person. 

Australian research shows that around 38% of young people aged 8 to 17 years old have used the Internet to communicate with someone they did not previously know. This study also found that boys were significantly more likely than girls to engage in this behavior.

How does it happen?

When younger children communicate with strangers online, it can often be attributed to using age-inappropriate or improperly set-up online gaming, streaming, or social media platforms. In these instances, parents are often unaware that their child can communicate with unknown players. In addition, children of lower primary school age can struggle with the concept of qualifying a ‘stranger’ online, resulting in the communication going unnoticed by parents. If someone online is being kind, complementary, or helpful, many young children will assume that the person is their friend, irrespective of their offline relationship and whether or not they have met them in person.

When teenagers form relationships with people online, it’s typically more intentional. It is relatively common for friendships to develop through multiplayer games and for romantic relationships to blossom through social media platforms such as Instagram. Some pre-teen or teen social media users use platforms such as TikTok and Instagram to actively seek romantic interests. This phenomenon is so common it’s been given a name: ‘sliding into the DMs’ (or ‘direct messages’ for anyone who isn’t fluent in Generation Z).

Straight from the experts

Here are our three top insights direct from ySafe's leading cyber safety experts.

Teodora Pavkovic

Psychologist

01

Know your games

Multiplayer games and games with chat functions may not be appropriate for young players, particularly when users can’t control their gaming companions. Before allowing your child to download or play a game, refer to the ‘Features’ section of our App & Game Reviews to see what communication features are available for each app. Wherever possible, use in-platform controls to manage who can contact and play with your child online.

02

Educate about catfishing

Before their introduction to social media, educate your child about online impersonation. It can be very difficult to verify the true identity of the people we meet online. Giving your child some simple steps they can follow to help them think critically about the identity of the people they meet online, as well as promoting ongoing communication and remaining engaged in your child’s online activities and relationships are essential. This Teen Vogue article provides some helpful tips for teens meeting people through social media.

03

Talk about healthy relationships

Research shows that relationships formed online tend to progress faster than those developed offline. Private conversation topics and constant communication can blur the lines of healthy boundaries and respect for personal values. It’s important to have proactive conversations with our children about what a ‘healthy relationship’ looks like and the importance of setting personal boundaries. Some things to consider when it comes to setting boundaries in online relationships are outlined here.

If you're concerned that your child may be starting relationships online, here are the steps that we would recommend you take:

01.
Have proactive conversations

If younger children are playing multiplayer games online, in addition to using in-platform controls to manage who they can communicate with, give them explicit boundaries around online chat. This is something that you could outline in your family’s digital agreement.

For children or teens just starting on social media, talk to them about the importance of using privacy settings and being selective with who they allow to follow or contact them. Avoid fear-mongering and instead talk to them about possibilities that may occur, such as catfishing and online impersonation. 

When it comes to older teens, be clear about your expectations around their behavior, and get them to practice thinking critically about the people they engage with, as well as the possible motivations behind their connection request.

02.
Maintain supervision

These days becoming actively involved in your child’s online world is non-negotiable, but it doesn’t have to be onerous. Using parental control tools to filter content and vet the games and apps they download is a great starting point.

For younger children, set up all online accounts for them using your email address and ensure you are the password manager. As social media comes into the picture later, become ‘friends’ with or ‘follow’ your child, so you can keep a close eye on those they are connecting with and who is commenting on their posts. 

Don’t allow gaming consoles in the bedroom. For younger children using mobile devices, avoid letting them use head-sets and ensure they stay within the vicinity of a trusted adult for supervision. This is not about spying but making sure their online relationships stay safe and healthy.

03.
Block and report

It's important for parents to encourage their children to proactively remove people that cause them anxiety or stress in the online world. Each game or social media platform has a report and block feature enabling users to report those who behave inappropriately. If your child is subjected to serious threats, intimidation, or anything illegal, you can also report the issue to support organizations such as the office of the eSafety Commissioner.

04.
Make online connections a regular talking point

Some children spend up to eight hours a day on devices! Just as you may commonly enquire about what happened at school that day, it’s also important to ask kids about what is happening in their online world. Integrating these questions into your family discussions can prove extremely valuable, as these micro conversations signify your attention and support of their online interests.

05.
Seek help when needed

As a parent, it's completely natural to feel that the online world is overwhelming at times. You are not expected to be on top of everything all the time (it’s mission impossible!), but it is helpful to know about a handful of legitimate places you can quickly go to find help or that can point you in the right direction if needed. 

Firstly, always report any issues to the social media platform administrators or game developers. It’s essential for them to be aware of any inappropriate activity to allow them the opportunity to remove people or content that could cause others distress. Secondly, report serious issues to support services like the office of the eSafety Commissioner, who can investigate or act on your child’s behalf if a severe incident has occurred. 

Your child’s school can also be a great resource for support, especially if your child is having problems with real-life friendships due to the online environment. Remember, they are there to partner with you to try and resolve issues.

eHeadspace and Kids Helpline are also fantastic resources, and of course, please reach out to us at ySafe for any advice on concerns you may have.

Further information

Sexting & Nudes

Our experts' guide to identifying and managing sexting.

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How to set up a cyber safe home

Our simple ABC model is a practical and effective way to create a safe online environment for your family.