300 – R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t: Online Safety Campaign, with Kelsey Syms

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Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Kelsey Syms as the two discuss R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t and its importance in educating youth and parents and caregivers about online dangers.

Kelsey Syms

Kelsey Syms is the program manager for the Combating Human Trafficking program at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. She has a master’s in Applied Leadership and Management and a bachelor’s in Political Science. She’s been with the McCain Institute, based in Washington D.C., since 2018.

Key Points

  • A recent survey by the McCain Institute found that parents and teen on’t talk about sexting and online dangers.
  • It’s important that the talk between parents and teens about sexting and online dangers fulfill the stop, drop and roll method, meaning that it is a repetitive practice, not just a box that is being crossed off.
  • Many parents often avoid difficult conversations like the one about online dangers, because they fear they are exposing their child to mature subjects at too early an age. However, R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t provides a toolkit that gives parents tips on conversation starters.
  • R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t is focused on educating young people about the ways in which predators use social media to target vulnerable groups. They provide resources for both parents and teens, in Spanish and English.


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Sandra Morgan 0:00

You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode 300, R.E.A.L Friends Don’t: Online Safety Campaign with, Kelsey Syms.

Sandra Morgan 0:29

Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast here at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice in Orange County, California. This is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Today we have with us Kelsey Syms, from the McCain Institute to talk about the R.E.A.L Friends Don’t Online Safety Campaign. Kelsey has a master’s in Applied Leadership and Management and a bachelor’s in political science. She’s been with the McCain Institute since 2018. So Kelsey, welcome.

Kelsey Syms 1:20

Thank you so much, Dr. Morgan. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sandra Morgan 1:24

I’d like to know a little bit first about, what is the McCain institute?

Kelsey Syms 1:29

The McCain Institute is an action tank. We are a part of Arizona State University based in Washington, DC and we work on a whole host of issues ranging from democracy, human rights, preventing targeted violence, leadership programs, and combating human trafficking.

Sandra Morgan 1:55

I love that and you’ve actually been with the McCain institute combating human trafficking for five years now. Is that right? 

Kelsey Syms 2:05

That’s correct, I have. I joined the institute. I spent an internship with the Department of Justice in their child exploitation and obscenity section, and shortly thereafter joined the McCain Institute’s combating human trafficking program, and have really enjoyed the thorough and impactful work that we’ve been doing, and really see a lot of opportunity ahead for us.

Sandra Morgan 2:29

So I think it’s important when we do our show notes, we’ll put a link to the McCain institute. I love how it is based in an academic setting because so often we have abolitionist agendas, we are advocates, we’re activists, but we really love that the Global Center for Women and Justice is in an academic setting, because that makes our primary task knowledge based, studying the issues. So that’s what we’re going to get into right away because you guys did a survey recently, and produced a report: “Parents and teens don’t talk about sexting and online dangers.” So what did you learn from that survey?

Kelsey Syms 3:23

We had some really interesting findings. I think, on one hand, we anticipated what those results might look like, but of course when you get them back in a thorough report and actually hear from those individuals themselves, you realize what a gap we are really seeing between parents and teens and conversations about safe online behavior in a time when we’re really seeing technology advance at such a rapid pace. And because young people moved online at such an earlier age because of the pandemic, what we really found is that parents and caregivers believe that talking about online safety, online grooming, sharing explicit photos (also known as nudes), or re sharing those photos, is really important to talk to teens about. Yet we found that parents aren’t actually having those conversations and that’s what we’ve really set out to do through the R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t Campaign. 

Sandra Morgan 4:32

So let me ask you, you’re blowing my mind. Parents don’t talk to their kids? Because it’s on the news all the time! There was sextortion. How did people express that they don’t talk to their kids about this? How do you understand that?

Kelsey Syms 4:51

What we’ve really seen and what we found through this research is a variety of reasons why caregivers are hesitant to talk to their kids. It could range from feelings of embarrassment, they didn’t feel comfortable raising this conversation, they didn’t know how to broach it with their kids. Or some folks felt like they were exposing their child to something at too early of an age or something that would never happen to their child. And of course, really, what we’ve seen is that’s just not the case.

Sandra Morgan 5:26

I totally understand that rationale, I have heard so many times, I don’t want to introduce this to my child until they’re 12 or 13. But I was recently with a country study class from Vanguard in Madrid, and they had just released a report that the average age of introduction to online pornography in Madrid, in Spain was eight years old. So overcoming this sense that my child is too young, or it’s too early to introduce this, I think that’s a really important finding for people to understand that we have. So thanks for letting me stop you and ask questions. Go ahead and tell us some more of the findings.

Kelsey Syms 6:22

Sure. Well, I think really what we found and what I’m so excited to discuss with you today is, first that really critical gap that we found between caregivers and young people not having this conversation, yet, knowing that it’s a really important conversation to have. What we found is that most young people are waiting for their caregiver or parent to start that conversation. And so we’ve really seen the onus on that caregiver, to be ready to start that conversation, keep it honest, keep it appropriate, and really keep it open, right? We don’t want this to be a scary conversation, nobody is in trouble, but you need to have that open line of communication so young people know they can go to a trusted adult if something goes wrong. But what I also found really interesting, and I’m excited to dig in with you today, is that we found that friends and online friends appear to be nearly as influential as family members on topics related to online safety. So grooming, chatting with strangers online, etcetera, and so what we’re really interested in is making sure that young people also have the knowledge and the resources to support another peer or a friend or a sibling, knowing that young people might look to other young people for that guidance and support.

Sandra Morgan 7:55

That is so powerful and honestly, it’s what attracted me to the launch of this campaign. Because when I went to the R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t page, I was able to choose whether I wanted to go down the parent path or dive right in as a teen. The idea that it is to empower youth to protect themselves and their friends really aligns with many of the values we have here at the Global Center for Women and Justice. All of us know that our youth roll their eyes when grandma says “You shouldn’t do that.” Even when mom says that, and they, out of this teen invincibility phenomenon that we know through research is real, kids will say, and you’ve probably heard this, “That will never happen to me. Don’t worry, I can take care of myself. I can handle myself.” But the reality is, they do listen to their peers. So I am really excited about R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t. Do you want to describe how it appears to the kids and some of the rationale behind each of the elements of R.E.A.L?

Kelsey Syms 9:22

Absolutely. As you mentioned, we launched the R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t campaign in December of 2020, in response to the increase in online enticement and grooming. We, in the human trafficking and online safety fields, we’re seeing because of the pandemic everybody was moving to a virtual setting. kids were online at an earlier age, caregivers didn’t necessarily have the capacity to make sure their kids were using these apps and platforms safely. And so we wanted to take all of the incredible resources that already exist about online safety, and bring them together under one roof, and really create that stop, drop, and roll of online safety. 

Sandra Morgan 10:12

What is a stop, drop, and roll?

Kelsey Syms 10:15

Stop, drop, and roll. In terms of what I think many of us were taught in elementary school, if you are in a situation where you’re on fire, you’re supposed to stop, drop and roll. It is those basic three steps to take to help you in the immediate sense of danger.

Sandra Morgan 10:35

I remember that, in those stop, drop and roll exercises, they practiced over and over again, it wasn’t a one off once a year, we check the box on fire safety. So the stop, drop and roll principle, when we apply this, has to have the same element of repetition.

Kelsey Syms 11;01

100%, I could not agree more. Really, we want caregivers and teens to feel like they know how to manage their online experience, and what to do if something or someone does make them feel uncomfortable. R.E.A.L. is the mnemonic, so the four steps that we ask either teens or caregivers to take when interacting in the digital world or talking to their kids about the digital world. So I’d really love to focus on the teen portion of this campaign during this conversation, and perhaps share what those four steps we ask teens to take are.

Sandra Morgan 11;48

I really love that it’s four things because then I can create four strategies with my kids that are just like that stop, drop and roll example that you started with. It’s going to take us a while and we have to get in our minds as teachers, as childcare providers, as caregivers, and as parents, how do we start making that a part of everyday practices? So let’s dive in with R.E.A.L Friends Don’t Pretend to be Something They’re Not. How do we judge that? How do we teach our kids? Start with the R.

Kelsey Syms 12:32

As a parent, we want a parent or a caregiver to raise the topic of online safety with your kids. It needs to be open, honest, age appropriate, and as you mentioned, it can’t be a one time conversation. This needs to be frequent, it needs to be a part of everyday life, because we’re using technology on an everyday basis. We also want parents to educate themselves on the technology that kids are using. It seems like there is a new app or gaming platform that comes out weekly and we know it can be incredibly overwhelming for a parent or caregiver to keep up with all of that changing technology, and so we at the McCain institute through the R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t campaign, have created a ‘Know the Platform’ section of the R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t website that gives a short description of what that platform is, what it’s used for, and then direct links to any safety settings or parental controls that can be enacted, hoping to really help parents cut through everything and find just the main details of what they need so they can stay up to date and informed in really an ever changing landscape of technology.

Sandra Morgan 13:35

Oh my goodness, that’s brilliant, I love it, and I’m going to make sure we put a direct link to that particular platform because it is overwhelming to think ‘I’ve got to find out what is the latest social media thing my child might be on.’ That’s great. Thank you. We’ll get that link from you for our show notes.

Kelsey Syms 14:17

Fantastic. Next, we want parents and caregivers to act if something makes them or their child uncomfortable. They need to know where to turn to either file a report or support their child. We highly encourage caregivers and parents report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children cyber tip line. It’s anonymous, you can make a report online and they can help provide the support that’s needed during what can be a really challenging and scary time, not only for a young person but for their family. 

Sandra Morgan 14:54

I like that. 

Kelsey Syms 14:55

And lastly, we ask parents to learn all they can. It is such a daunting topic and it can be really challenging and overwhelming, but it can’t be a one time conversation. It can’t be a once a year conversation. We can’t just check that box. You need to stay involved, stay alert. We really encourage parents and caregivers, if there’s an opportunity, try and play the video game that your kids are playing with them. You’re going to learn so much from spending that time together and learning directly from them, while also creating a bonding opportunity that will hopefully help make that conversation a little bit easier and a little bit more frequent.

Sandra Morgan 15:38

Are there any links on that particular element of the R.E.A.L. pneumonic for parents and caregivers?

Kelsey Syms 15:47

We do, we point to several other resources from organizations that we think have really informed the population about online safety well. So in the event that a listener or a parent or caregiver is interested in learning more about a specific subject, you’ll see a list of resources, through the ‘Learn All You Can’ channel that is a great, great place to start.

Sandra Morgan 16:12

Okay, we’re going to give people lots of things to do after they finish listening to this podcast. So let’s look at the teens. How does R.E.A.L. work for them?

Kelsey Syms 16:27

I really love this question and I’m so excited and proud of this piece of the campaign. Because we wanted to keep this campaign very simple, very straightforward, actionable and accessible. And so that R.E.A.L. friends don’t messaging resonates with both a caregiver and a teen. It can be a conversation starter of what real friends do and what real friends don’t do. So the concept that teens can also keep a real mnemonic, or those four simple steps in mind, to me hopefully makes it a little bit easier and approachable to begin learning about safe online behavior. So we ask teens first to realize that predators can pretend to be your friend. We know that predators will pretend to be somebody they’re not, they might sometimes identify a vulnerability or a need, to build a trusting relationship with you at first. That is part of a trick called grooming and we really want young people to understand that sometimes folks aren’t who they say they are, and to learn those warning signs of what red flags might look like in the online space.

Sandra Morgan 17:46

So how do you teach those red flags?

Kelsey Syms 17:50

We have conversations about them. We also point to a series of red flags and warning signs on the website so teens can begin to familiarize themselves with what some of those concerning instances might look like, and again provide several resources where they can either seek additional support, if something they realize has stood out to them, or other resources where they can learn more. 

Sandra Morgan 18:16

Okay, next.

Kelsey Syms 18:20

Next we ask teens to educate themselves on who predators target for exploitation. We know that it can happen to anybody, but we also know that communities of color and LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately at risk of being targeted. Similar to those red flags, we really want teens to learn about who traffickers target and make sure that they either keep their profile settings on a private setting or that they remain really vigilant about who they’re interacting with in the digital world.

Sandra Morgan 18:56

So on that element, I’ve encountered parents and youth who feel that the privacy definitions are different for the adults in their lives and for themselves and their friends. I’m trying to figure out how to have some kind of guideline that we all agree on and I’ve talked to parents who have very strict privacy settings in their home, even on the Wi Fi that’s available in their home. What they often neglect to understand is that when their teens leave that environment, they may be in other Wi Fi environments where there are no privacy settings, there are no guards in place. It becomes really important for youth to have a better understanding of who is seeing their information and protecting themselves. It’s like pulling down the curtain at night, and making sure people can’t see you. How does that translate in this?

Kelsey Syms 20:20

Well, I think you’ve brought up a really good point and we as a campaign and as an organization, do not necessarily promote a sense of anti-social media anti-technology, but rather we know that technology is going to exist for ever at this point and young people are already online. They’ve downloaded the apps, they’ve participated, they’ve built relationships and so we really want to equip them with the resources, and the tools, and the know how, to navigate that digital space safely. I think it’s really up to each family to determine how they want to manage their online safety settings within their household. We always encourage young people to keep their profiles on private, versus a public setting so they’re only interacting with people they know in real life. In some instances, we do know that young people, specifically LGBTQ+ youth, look to online spaces to build relationships and explore their identity. We encourage young people to use safe spaces like the Trevor Project, or Q chat space, to interact with individuals online. But really, we would leave it up to the families to make sure that the safety settings and the rules and responsibilities within that household fit whatever they feel is best.

Sandra Morgan 21:56

Okay. And you do have a link to provide more information about how traffickers target specific vulnerable populations. So that’s really helpful. Let’s move to ‘A’.

Kelsey Syms 22:10

A, we ask teens to ask themselves before sharing any photo: Would I want my grandma to see this? It can be a little cheeky, but the truth is, if that answer is no, then don’t share it. There is such a risk in the digital world that it’s going to be reshared, or get into the hands of somebody who shouldn’t have it. We really want to promote the messaging that if you don’t want your grandma to see it, you shouldn’t send it out in the first place. Now, let me also say, if a teen has shared an image, and it has been shared online, there are resources to help remove those photos from the digital space in a safe and anonymous way. We provide those resources on the R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t campaign. It’s through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. So if something does happen, there are ways to take it down.

Sandra Morgan 23:17

I love that. I think it’s really important and if you have a youth in your life, even if you haven’t started these kinds of conversations, it’s important for them to know that there is a way to take it down and that resource, we’ll make sure we have that link in our show notes. And if you haven’t had those conversations, a great way to do that is to say to Sally or Jim or whoever, “If any of your friends have been convinced to share something they didn’t really feel they should have shared, there is help, and here’s the link, and feel free to share it.” Lots of times kids come to me and they say things about, well, I have a friend. And y’all know that sometimes when they say I have a friend, they’re trying to gauge how you’re going to react and judge that friend before they tell you that maybe this may have been their own experience. So I’m really glad that you have that available in a youth friendly environment. Thank you for that.

Kelsey Syms 24:27

Most definitely, most definitely. And on that note, it brings us to the last step. We want teens to let somebody know if they feel uncomfortable. Sometimes blocking somebody or reporting somebody on social media isn’t enough and teens need to talk to a friend or a sibling or a trusted adult about how to seek help. ‘What do you do?’ and it’s so important and it takes us back to that first step of raising the conversation. We need to be comfortable talking about what can happen in the digital world, in order to really make sure teens feel safe and protected and know they can come to somebody if they need help. We do point on the website to different ways that teens can support other teens. What can you do to help? You can call your friends out, if they take risky choices, you can discourage the sharing of personal photos, etc. We help again, with some of those ways that you can support your friends and peers.

Sandra Morgan 25:36

I’m especially happy to hear that because here in Orange County, California, right where Vanguard University is, Disneyland is here. We’ve got a beautiful county, but 90% of our commercially sexually exploited children last year, were already in a vulnerable situation that had been identified by child welfare and they may not feel that they have a trusted adult. So equipping teens to be that support, and teens actually know how to report, even if it’s anonymously, how to get help, how to get it removed, those kinds of things, those are empowering for a peer to peer community of support and online safety. There may never be an adult that gets to hear what’s going on, but they have a lot of impact in their own communities and I think as we recognize their strength, their resilience, their knowledge, we can learn from them, and we can trust them to keep their friends safe as well.

Kelsey Syms 26:57


Sandra Morgan 26:59

So on that note, I’m curious if this has been rolled out to educators in the schools? How have you rolled this out in communities?

Kelsey Syms 27:12

We have tested since we launched in 2020, a variety of outreach approaches. We are really interested in understanding how to shift behavior when it comes to talking about online safety and what is resonating best with our to target audiences of parents and caregivers, and teenagers. We have utilized a variety of approaches over the past several years, through social, digital and physical outreach forms. Through social media we’ve worked with influencers who are parents, who have helped share the message of R.E.A.L. friends don’t. They’ve given examples of how they’ve had these conversations with their children in their own household. We’ve used digital media through targeted advertisements to really have a far and wide reach, making sure this can reach as many people as possible. And we’ve tested different physical outreach approaches ranging from billboards across the state of Texas in Spanish and English, and public art with teens and local community leaders, trying to find different ways to make sure this is resonating and feels approachable in a way that works best for that community. Everything on the campaign is publicly available, it’s publicly accessible. It is all offered in Spanish and English and we are really excited to see over the next two years, what type of outreach helps shift the conversation and close that gap, to make sure that we are really having an impact through this awareness campaign on those communities who we really need to reach.

Sandra Morgan 29:08

I’m excited that it is in Spanish as well. I hadn’t heard about the billboards, but I’m going to look that up. I think that’s wonderful and hopefully we can get some here in California as well. I’m sure there’s other places they would like that. If someone wants to integrate this campaign in their local community as a test site, who would they contact?

Kelsey Syms 29:38

They can contact me directly. I’m happy for my email address to be shared. We also do have a community toolkit available on our website and perhaps we can provide a link to that as well that individuals, whether you’re an educator you’re a family member, perhaps you run an after school extra curricular activity or club, that you can use this toolkit to help facilitate some of those conversations among the youth that you are around.

Sandra Morgan 30:11

That is brilliant. I love that. This is going to be an episode where we have like a whole set of links in the show notes for folks to go and look a little deeper. I am so excited, Kelsey, for this launch and I love that you’ve already mentioned the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In some of my conversations, people are looking for a one size fits all approach to prevention, and online safety, but my thinking is we need all of it, because I’ve got two daughters and they both learn very differently so I can’t use exactly the same strategy. So I like having an opportunity to choose some of this and kids go through all the lessons, and then they say “what next?” So it’s great to have partners like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, their NetSmartz materials will complement this really well. Also, I want listeners to start thinking about statistics that show how soon our children are experiencing online, compromising uncomfortable situations. So how do we start doing online safety as early as possible? I just want to thank you for the initiative for the parents and caregivers. For me personally, I love all the teens and you know I’m going to promote it. But raise the topic with your kids, educate yourself. And knowing there’s a place I can go that’s one stop, to find out all the latest technology, and act if I’m uncomfortable or my child is uncomfortable, and just learning. Knowledge and insight really helps us in protecting our community because the exploiters, the predators, they don’t keep using the same technique. They’re always updating and changing and we need to be just as nimble. I sincerely appreciate all the work of the McCain institute. I love that we have a new friend and Kelsey, I hope that we can work together more.

Kelsey Syms 32:52

Absolutely. Well thank you so much for having me, and Dr. Morgan, if I might just add one more link to share in the show notes. 

Sandra Morgan 33:00

Of course! 

Kelsey Syms 33:01

I would encourage listeners to also follow our social media platforms on Facebook, Instagram, and Threads. We are frequently posting new statistics, important news updates, references about different apps, safety controls, etc., so it is just another one stop shop for all things online safety that might be helpful to some of your listeners.

Sandra Morgan 33:28

That is awesome. So I’m gonna go start following you on social media and maybe you can follow us back. 

Kelsey Syms 33:36

Most definitely!

Sandra Morgan 33:38

Great. Thanks so much. For our listeners, please make sure you go to endinghumantrafficking.org to get all of those show notes. We’ll see you again in two weeks.





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