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    Stranger Danger

    By Tabitha Parent–

    Talking to strangers on the internet is the new “accepting candy from the man with the white van.”

    For many of the kids in my generation who grew up playing more Temple Run on their iPad than running around their neighborhoods or perhaps played a little (okay, a lot) more Doodle Jump than spent time jumping on a trampoline, we’ve become a lot less afraid of the man who offers us free candy on the street. After all, we’ve all heard of Stranger Danger, haven’t we?

    No, now the urban legend that gets us to eat our vegetables at night isn’t some creep in a minivan but rather a faceless, hoodie-clad hacker with a penchant for stealing our information.

    As a new generation of children grows up online, it’s only fitting that all the world’s dangers have since made the switch online too. And yet, despite the risks (that my parents have made sure to ingrain in my brain), I love the internet.

    Just like I loved playing “Little House on the Prairie” with American Girl Dolls in my backyard and pretending to be fairies with other kids on the playground while I was growing up, I love liking my friends’ latest posts on Instagram and leaving captions that show I care about the content they’re putting out there (while still maintaining my effortless cool-girl façade). I thoroughly enjoy the mind-numbing TikToks they send me because it makes me happy to know they thought of me when they watched. 

    Whether you grew up riding your bike to the beach with friends or sending them videos of the ocean on Snapchat, you were looking for a connection. You were watching for kids who would let you be Taylor Swift when you played “Singers” because, for whatever reason, they genuinely liked Selena Gomez more. Or, you were scouring the internet for people whose Instagram accounts shared your desired aesthetic. Same difference.

    Danger was and always will be a factor. There will always be creeps lurking around parks and 50-year-olds pretending to be your 14-year-old online gamer buddy. However, the internet provides opportunities that IRL (that’s “in real life”) baddies don’t have the “luxury” of. Anonymity. Hackers and creeps get to hide behind fake email addresses and phony profile pics to carry out their evildoings.

    But what happens when the only place you can go to feel safe is the very place where these anonymous villains lurk in the meta-shadows?

    For many LGBTQ youths, the anonymity of the internet is both a blessing and a curse. For kids whose families might not accept their sexuality or gender identity, the internet has become a place to seek out members of communities in which they feel safe. In fact, LGBTQ youth spend an average of 45 more minutes a day online, with 62% of LGBTQ youth using the internet to connect with other LGBTQ people.

    However, this leaves already vulnerable youth more susceptible to harassment by those who lurk in online spaces looking to harass members of the LGBTQ community. Currently, 25% of all LGBTQ youths experience online bullying or harassment. LGBTQ kids should be able to seek out other members of the LGBTQ community in safe and affirming ways without worrying about the potential for online harassment.

    Online spaces like TrevorSpace or Q Chat Space offer these safe spaces that LGBTQ kids seek when they venture online. Spaces like these are helping to revolutionize the experience that kids have when they look for connections with other LGBTQ youth online.

    For kids who may not have any other place to go to for support, having organizations that make sure that the online spaces that kids seek refuge in are safe and monitored is one way that we can help combat the discrimination that kids face surrounding their sexuality and gender identity.

    But I have to agree with one thing my parents tell me about the internet. It’s diminishing the number of face-to-face conversations and interactions that we regularly have. By not working to ensure that LGBTQ-identifying kids have physical, in-person spaces to seek support and connection, we are forcing them to form connections with strangers on the internet.

    This is why it is essential that educational institutions start working to incorporate LGBTQ-centered resources into their systems and that therapists and counselors know how to specifically talk to LGBTQ-identifying individuals. We can’t expect children to behave safely online if they don’t have strong examples of LGBTQ role models and support systems in their daily lives.

    In the end, the primary goal should always be to support others “IRL.”

    Tabitha Parent was born and raised in San Francisco and has just completed her first year of college at Boston College. In the fall, she will be a sophomore at Northwestern University studying journalism at the Medill School of Journalism. In her free time, she enjoys writing poetry and running on trails in the Presidio. 

    Published on August 11, 2022