A few months ago there was an awful incident in the community where my family lives. Police arrested a man who posed as a teenage girl on Facebook and used his virtual alias to have real encounters with underage girls. It’s a story that sounds far-fetched, but in our connected, anonymous world, it’s all too real.

For parents, these types of cases send a chill through our entire bodies and make us ponder locking our children in a windowless room free of technology until they’re adults. But since that’s not an option, the next best thing is to form a plan of action to protect our children from these types of online predators who hide behind a mask of secrecy to prey on our innocent, unsuspecting children.

The most important thing that any parent can do is to maintain open lines of communication with their children. This requires a delicate mix of persistence, probing, and insight. NetSmartz has some very good information on this topic.

1. Keep Tabs on Internet and Social Media Usage

This is critically important. As parents, you need to set up parental controls on each device in your home that accesses the Internet. You need to make sure that computers are placed in a common area and not in a child’s room where they have privacy and access to social media without your knowledge. Parents should also consider locking up smartphones or tablets at night so the children have no access to them. Finally, it’s important for parents to snoop. This means that you have access to your child’s Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram accounts.

2. Ask Questions

If you see a new friend on your child’s social media circle that you don’t know, by all means, you must inquire. "Who is this person?" "How do you know them?" These are simple questions that will probably have a benign answer, but you don’t know if you don’t ask. Also, if there are any other issues that arise from searching your child’s social media accounts regarding drinking, drug use, or other types of illicit or inappropriate behavior, you must confront them about it. This isn't about their privacy. This is about their protection.

3. Expect That Your Kids Have Questions

Kids hear a lot more than we think they do and they are savvier than we give them credit for. They probably hear a lot of things at school, while doing activities, or during sports practices that they don’t understand about sex and other challenging topics. Don’t let the schoolyard or the Internet be the source of their knowledge on these topics because if it is, they might encounter people all too willing to try and teach them things that will do irreparable harm. Instead, you need to be the voice that teaches them about these topics and answers them fully and honestly.

4. Talk to Your Kids Often About Online Dangers

Our children might not want to hear from Mom or Dad about the disturbing facts of sickening crimes involving children their age. But if we fail to discuss these things with them, they will probably learn about them in the exact places that we don’t want them to – online or from uneducated or unsophisticated friends. These are real issues with real consequences and if we don’t address them head on, then we are doing our children a great disservice.

5. Don’t Assume Anything

We often think that the stranger is the person we need to watch out for, when in fact predators can come in all shapes and sizes and from varied backgrounds – including from places that we might assume are trustworthy. That’s the problem, though. In this day and age, we cannot assume that anyone is truly safe and out of reach. As parents, we must question anything that seems unusual or out of the ordinary.

6. Look Out for Unusual Behavior

If your child is acting sneaky or is having significant mood swings or changes in behavior, that might be a sign that something is going on that they are not sharing with you. One of the things that they might be withholding from you is whether someone is making them uncomfortable online.

7. Build a Foundation of Trust

Your child must know that they can open up to you about these topics without fear of judgment or condemnation. Even if they have done something that you are not pleased with, the most important thing is making sure that they are safe in that moment and doing whatever you can to deal with the situation at hand. If it rises to the level of someone needing to be confronted or arrested, you will need to walk alongside your child each step of the way, ensuring that they are receiving the appropriate help and care that they need while working to rebuild any sense of innocence lost.