Risky Online Relationships
- online predator: a commonly used term for someone who uses the Internet to develop inappropriate relationships with kids or teens
- stereotype: a popular belief about a group of people, based on assumptions that are often false
- risky: potentially harmful to one’s emotional or physical well-being
- manipulate: trying to influence somebody to do something they might not otherwise do, for one’s own benefit
Note: Research suggests that lessons on Internet safety should not shy away from honest conversations about teen risk-taking, relationships, and sexuality. As such, this lesson deals with issues that may be difficult for both teachers and students to discuss openly. Please refer to the Communicating Safely Online Teacher Backgrounder (High School) for extra information on the content of this lesson, as well as tips for teaching sensitive topics.
Students first talk about common impressions of “stranger danger.”
Students learn why the term “online predator” is misleading, and how to identify more realistic forms of inappropriate contact. Students then discuss a story about a teen’s risky online relationship, and draw conclusions about how to stay safe online.
Students will be able to ...
- compare and contrast stereotypes and realities when it comes to Internet “stranger danger.”
- learn guidelines for determining safe online relationships, especially with strangers or casual acquaintances.
- brainstorm ways to help teens avoid risky online behavior.
Materials and Preparation
- Read the Risky Online Relationships Teacher Backgrounder.
- Review the Sheyna’s Situation Student Handout — Teacher Version.
- Copy Sheyna’s Situation Student Handout, one for each student.
INTRODUCE the idea that the Internet thrives because people want to share with, learn from, and respond to others online. Point out that there are many different types of online interactions between people who don’t know each other in an offline setting. These interactions are sometimes positive, and at other times they can make us feel uncomfortable.
ASK: What are some examples of positive interactions between strangers online?
- Selling your own products or possessions online
- Responding to internship or job opportunities online
- Leaving comments on other people’s blogs, even if you don’t know them personally
- Playing games or interacting in virtual worlds with people you don’t know offline
ASK: What are some examples of uncomfortable interactions between strangers online?
- Dealing with awkward friend requests from people you don’t know well
- Receiving mean or creepy comments from strangers
- Getting spam or junk mail
- Seeing IMs from unknown screennames
POINT OUT that there are many different kinds of online encounters with strangers that may make us feel uncomfortable. Some are harmless and easy to laugh off or forget about. Other encounters might affect us, or our friends, more seriously.
EXPLAIN that people often use the term “online predator” to describe one of the most serious kinds of situations with a stranger online.
DEFINE the Key Vocabulary term online predator. Encourage students to break down the term into its parts and think about the meaning of each word. (A predator is an animal that hunts and eats other animals; therefore an online predator would be someone who uses the Internet to lure and trap others into dangerous situations.)
EXPLAIN that many people worry about online predators, but their impressions do not always match up with reality. This is because news stories tend to cover the most extreme predator cases. They also often present these cases in ways that make people fearful of specific stereotypes.
DEFINE the Key Vocabulary term stereotype.
ASK: What are some common stereotypes of online predators?
- Online predators are creepy old men.
- They are interested in sexual things with little kids.
- They pretend to be kids online and convince other kids to do things that they don’t want to do.
- They try to gain kids’ trust and lure them offline to kidnap them.
SHARE the following facts that debunk the online predator stereotype:
- Teens are more likely to receive requests to talk about sexual things online from other teens or from young adults (ages 18 to 25) than they are from older adults.
- The small percentage of adults that does seek out relationships with teens online are usually up-front about their age, and about their sexual interests.
- Teens who develop an ongoing online connection with someone they don’t know, or who are willing to talk about sexual things online, are more likely to find themselves in a risky online relationship.
- Risky online relationships don’t always involve total strangers; sometimes they involve people teens have initially met offline.
ASK students if any of these facts surprise them, given what they have heard about online predators.
DEFINE the Key Vocabulary term risky, and have volunteers suggest what the word might mean in this context.(Guide students to consider how flirty conversations online may seem exciting or flattering, but that they also have the potential to be upsetting or feel abusive. They should know that people may in fact say or do things online that they would not in person. Students should also know that they may feel used, uncomfortable, or violated while chatting with people online – whether it’s with someone their own age or older.)
ENCOURAGE students to discuss how focusing on the online predator stereotype might make it harder to recognize other forms of risky online relationships. (Given that news stories emphasize that kids should beware of older adults who might try to take advantage of them, teens may think nothing of chatting with someone closer to their age – especially if that person is charming and flattering. In fact, it is important for teens to know that people closer to their age are more likely to coax them into uncomfortable situations online, or ask them to talk about inappropriate things.)
ASK students what the word “manipulate” means to them.
DEFINE the Key Vocabulary term manipulate, drawing connections to student responses if possible.
ASK: Why might it be tricky for people to recognize when they are being manipulated, especially online?
Some people try to manipulate you by pretending to be your friend, or making you feel understood and valued. Manipulation involves telling you things you want to hear, and gradually winning your trust before trying to control you.
EXPLAIN to students that they are going to read and analyze a story about a teen’s risky online relationship. This story will challenge them to think beyond online predator stereotypes. They should pay attention to how the relationship develops, and be on the lookout for anything that seems like manipulation.
DIVIDE students into pairs or groups of three.
DISTRIBUTE the Sheyna’s Situation Student Handout, one for each student. Give students 10 minutes to read the story and answer the questions on the handout in their groups.
INVITE groups to take turns sharing their answers to the questions on the handout. (Refer to the Sheyna’s Situation Student Handout – Teacher Version for sample answers.) Have all groups share their answers to the final question, which is about what advice they would give to Sheyna if they were her friend.
ASK: Based on our answers to these questions, we’ve pointed out that this relationship is risky. Why does it matter? What’s at stake for Sheyna? What about Nick?
Encourage students to think about the emotional and legal issues that may arise when younger people develop romantic, or sexual, relationships online with older people, or even with people their own age. In this case, Sheyna may eventually feel embarrassed, upset, or used. Also, Nick - a young adult - is sending sexually explicit message to a 14-year-old. This is illegal in most states.
HAVE students expand their advice to Sheyna into a general set of principles for teens to follow in avoiding risky online relationships. You may want to write these tips on the board, or project them for students to see. Be sure to include the following points:
- Change it up. If something feels like it might be getting risky, it probably is. But if you’re not sure, try changing the subject, making a joke, or saying you want to talk about something else. If you still feel pressured by or uncomfortable with the situation, you need to take further action.
- Log off or quit. You need to remember that at any time you can just stop typing and log off if a conversation gets uncomfortable online. You can also take action to block or report another user, or create a new account – whether for email, IM, or a virtual world – to avoid contact with that person again.
- Know that it’s okay to feel embarrassed or confused. It’s not always easy to make sense of situations that make you uncomfortable online. Nor is it easy to ask for help if you feel embarrassed about what you’ve experienced. These feelings are normal, and it’s okay to talk about them.
- Talk to a friend or trusted adult. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Even if you feel you can handle a tricky situation alone, it’s always a good idea to turn to friends, parents, teachers, coaches, and counselors for support.
You can use these questions to assess your students’ understanding of the lesson objectives. You may want to ask students to reflect in writing on one of the questions, using a journal or an online blog/wiki.
ASK: Why is the term “online predator” misleading? What is the reality when it comes to risky online relationships?
Students should be aware of the stereotype that there are creepy older men lurking on the Internet, looking for kids. These kinds of online predators do exist, but they are not that common. Teens themselves and young adults are more likely than older adults to ask teens about sexual things online. Also, the small percentage of adults that are actually interested in developing relationships with teens online are usually upfront about their age and about their inappropriate intentions.
ASK: How can you avoid getting involved in risky online relationships?
Students should be wary of any online relationship with strangers or acquaintances who are older than they are. They should avoid flirting online with people they don’t know face to face – whether it’s a joke or whether it’s serious – and be aware of people trying to manipulate them. If anything makes them feel uncomfortable, they should take action to stop it. They should also tell a trusted adult if they or their friends are in danger.
Have students consider how the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood” is a warning to children against dangerous adult strangers. (A full version of the story can be found here). Students can work individually or in pairs to answer the following questions:
- What are the benefits and drawbacks of telling “stranger danger” stories to kids?
- How might the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” fuel, or encourage, stereotypes of online predators?
- Students can also research the history of “Little Red Riding Hood” online to discover how the story has changed over time and across different cultures.
Students can play the online game “Nude-e-Calls” from the website That’s Not Cool in order to evaluate different responses to requests for sexting (sex texting). Remind students that it’s also possible to do risky things online with teens their own age, including people they know and even people they are dating. (You may wish to preview this game in advance to determine whether the content is appropriate for your students.)
Invite students to imagine that the conversations in the game are happening in an online chat, and between two people who met online. Have them write a new message (three to five sentences) that would appear to players after they finished the game. The message should communicate to players why it’s especially risky to flirt with strangers online. Students should also remember that they are writing for a teen audience.
Alignment with Standards
- grades 9-10: RL.4, RL.10, RI.4, RI.10, W.4, W.6-8, W.10, SL.1a-d, SL.2, SL.4, SL.5, L.6
- grades 11-12: RL.4, RL.10, RI.4, RI.10, W.4, W.6-8, W.10, SL.1a-d, SL.2, SL.4, SL.5, L.6
NETS•S: 4a, 4c, 4d, 5a, 5b