I’m 18 and learned my online roleplay partner lied about their age and is actually 12. How do I make sure they stay safe online?
Dear Stop It Now!,
When we first began, I was under the impression this person was as old as or older than me. They initiated sexual interactions between our two characters. I went with it, and we maintained this sexual roleplay between our game characters.
After they said they were 15, at first, I didn't know how to break it off but eventually stopped all sexual aspects of our characters’ relationship. I started giving them occasional talks on how to recognize predators and abusive dynamics and linking them to age-appropriate resources.
Recently, this person now has admitted to actually being 12 years old. Along with other players in the game, we have been discussing how to keep this child safe. We're trying to take on a parental role and try to explain to them why what they did was bad and dangerous.
They seem in denial. They keep saying that they're fine, and that 'roleplay isn't dangerous.’ But this young person has discussed sexual topics from day one, such as porn and masturbating. They’ve pursued relationships with people they knew were 16-18 and encouraged and pursued sexual roleplay. I'm really scared for them. That's not normal or healthy for a kid. I'm so scared they will get or already are involved with sexual activities elsewhere.
I deeply care for this person, like as a younger sibling. I'm trying so hard to explain to them why it's so dangerous and to get them to stop seeking out and putting out sexual content online. I don't want them to be hurt more than they already are. We're all putting up hard lines on the roleplay, and we will not bring any romantic or sexual themes into it from now on.
We're going to adjust our behavior and gameplay to be age appropriate for a 12 year old. None of us want to lose our friend, but more importantly right now if we banned them from any gameplay with us, they would no longer have one of the only stable points in their lives or the only adults who know what's going on and trying to keep them safe in their life. I'm so scared they'll just go find other people.
But I know that's not enough. We can only make sure our little space of the internet is safe for them and if they seek out other areas we can't stop them. And they refuse to acknowledge that they are just a kid who doesn't know everything. They say they know how to spot abuse but the fact they knowingly pursued sexual role play with adults proves they're really not ready to just go out and about online.
I'm so scared for my friend. I really care about this kid, they're like found family to me and even if I didn't feel that way, as an adult I still owe any kid putting themselves in danger at least an attempt at keeping them safe.
Please help me. I don't know what to do beyond what we have already done and plan to do.
... less important, I've been repressing my own disgust at myself and details of my own earlier involvement because I know I'll have a mental breakdown. If you have advice and resources for that, I would appreciate it.
Thank you so so so much for your time.
Dear Caring Adult,
Thanks so much for reaching out to us about this complicated topic. It is really fabulous of you all to adjust your behaviors online so that they are appropriate for a 12-year-old. They are so lucky to have someone like you in their life.
It sounds like you’ve done a great job so far in talking generally about safety and concerning behaviors they might encounter from unsafe folks online. Now it would be especially important to talk to them directly about all that you’ve been noticing that worries you. I’m going to give you a few ideas about how to craft this conversation, and I’ve got suggestions for resources for this youth and support for you.
I hear that you and these other players are concerned that you might potentially be the only stable people in this youth’s life. So, before having a conversation, please consider how this 12-year-old’s disclosure of their true age may actually be a sign that they are asking for help with a difficult and perhaps abusive situation. I imagine you all have thought about this, but there is a possibility that this child has experienced sexual abuse, or at the very least, has been exposed to sexually inappropriate content. It is natural of course for a 12-year-old to be curious about sexual and romantic relationships, but this child’s behavior has Warning Signs of crossed boundaries and is overly mature for their age.
With this in mind, you may want to plan out a conversation beforehand with the other people in your game to clearly share your concerns about this youth’s safety directly to this child. Think about what you’d like to say and who would like to say what. This conversation is as much about asking questions as it is about sharing information, so consider what you can ask and share in order to get a clearer sense of what’s going on for this youth.
You might want to start this direct conversation by sharing with them that you all care about them, maybe saying something like:
“We care about you, so we want to talk to you about some things we’ve noticed. Please know that there is no judgment here – you are our friend and teammate, and you are so important to us. And, that’s why it’s important that we share how concerning it is that you misrepresented yourself by not being honest about your age, and then engaging in romantic and sexual scenarios with us. We are very worried about your safety.”
It is so okay to ask them some things directly to get a sense of what they’re dealing with and what supports they have in real life. Some questions are:
- We’re curious, where are you learning about all of this sexual stuff? Because it sounds really mature.
- Are you involved in a sexual relationship with someone in real life? Are they older or younger than you? How do you know them?
- Do you have supportive, safe adults that you trust in the real world? Who can you reach out to – like a parent, teacher or another adult – if they aren’t safe, have concerns about relationships or any other questions or concerns?
You may even want to talk about the importance of consent. It is always adults’ responsibility to adhere to age of consent laws. When they were not truthful about their age, it was impossible for any of you to knowingly consent, and this is why you may feel tricked. So, to be honest, your concern reasonably involves both this child’s safety and your own. They are putting you all at risk for legal consequences.
If they don’t respond as you might expect, that’s okay. They are young, and this is a lot to take in. A child may take a long time to trust that adults won’t want to engage in sexual behaviors with them, especially if they’ve been used to these types of behaviors from adults.
Regardless of their reaction, this conversation is protective. You’re showing this youth that there are stable, caring people in their life who know about safety and are willing to talk about it – even if it feels uncomfortable. Additionally, you are modeling for them safe behaviors, boundaries and respect. This is so important, and I don’t want you to underestimate the impact that can make on this child’s situation and even their own behaviors.
You might also want to share some resources with them. If there isn’t any adult they trust in their offline life, or if they want to talk something out a little more before talking to someone they know, they can always reach out to:
- Your Life Your Voice (1.800.448.3000), a crisis line for youth who are dealing with a variety of difficult issues. Their phone line is open 24/7/365. They also have email support, chat availability Mondays thru Fridays from 6p-12a CST, and text (VOICE to 20121) every day from 4p-12a CST.
- ChildHelp’s confidential hotline, 1.800.4A.CHILD. Their trained staff are available 24/7 to anyone who is concerned about a child’s physical, emotional or sexual wellbeing. They may be able to advise this youth on additional next steps.
Action Steps are Supportive
Finally, I hear that you’re really worried about your involvement with this youth. It sounds like you did everything you could to make the right decisions. When we are confusing role playing with real life, boundaries can become unclear. Certainly, many of us can cross a boundary, even though our values and intentions can be very different. What is clear is that you noticed when it didn’t feel right, took some time to reflect, and then you reset the boundaries with this youth. I hope you are able to see how you have been handling this as best you can.
It’s still absolutely okay to reach out for support. Any and all feelings that this stirs up are worthy of exploration. But, be gentle with yourself. This is a really complicated time, so I hope that there are other people you trust – like friends, relatives, or even a faith leader or your own therapist – in your life whom you can confide in and share what you feel comfortable expressing. If you are ever curious about seeking out your own professional, please feel free to take a look at our resource guide all about Finding Professional Treatment and Support.
Thanks again for reaching out. If you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to write back. Take good care.
Stop It Now!
Last edited on: March 27th, 2020