The online world of the internet and social media has transformed the ways we relate and communicate with one another, both for better and worse. With these technological changes come new activities, programs, risks, and safety concerns.
For all the good the internet has brought to our lives, it has also created a magnitude of channels people can use to exploit and harm others.
Parents need to be aware that children may be vulnerable to sexual abuse, harassment and/or stalking when they are online. Children (and adults for that matter) don’t necessarily have the skills needed to determine the credibility of an internet site, especially in the rapidly changing landscape of social media. Thus, children and youth may not be able to distinguish between things that are illegal and legal.
Some ways children may be at risk when they are online:
- Online and offline predators: are people who prey on children (pedophiles). While pedophiles are generally loners, the advent of the internet has brought these people together in online spaces where they share information. An online predator will typically build a relationship with a child via a social media platform using a false identity. Over time they may start to ask for photos and personal information. Once they have the photo they may engage in something called ‘sextortion’, which involves asking the child for money, passwords, or further sexual images with the threat of sharing the original photo if they don’t abide.
- Peer/self exploitation: occurs when a sexual image/video of a youth is shared amongst peers via social media or texting. It is more commonly referred to as: sexting. For example, a girl sends a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend. After they break-up the boyfriend gets back at his former girlfriend by sending the photo to a bunch of classmates. This is also a form of sexual exploitation and is illegal. What most people don’t understand is that sharing sexual content of an individual without their consent is a form of sexual exploitation and is a crime. See (Criminal Code of Canada)
- Online sexual exploitation: According to ECPAT, online sexual exploitation “most commonly includes grooming, live streaming, consuming child sexual abuse material, and coercing and blackmailing children for sexual purposes.”Adults can also experience online sexual exploitation when private images are shared without their consent. Exposure to unwanted sexual content is also a form of sexual harassment and exploitation.
- Cyberbullying/harassment: The Cyberbullying Research Center states that the following elements constitute cyberbulling:
Willful: The behavior has to be deliberate, not accidental.
Repeated: Bullying reflects a pattern of behavior, not just one isolated incident
Harm: The target must perceive that harm was inflicted.
Computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices: This, of course, is what differentiates cyberbullying from traditional bullying
What to do if you or someone you know is the target of harmful online activity?
- If you are in danger or worried about your safety contact the police.
- Document and do not do delete any messages or content that evidence online or electronic harassment, bullying, or exploitation.
- Tell the individual to stop the behavior if it is appropriate and safe to do so. And cease communication.
- Some social media apps have the option to block or report a user.
- The following sites provide further information around what to do if you have been subjected to online sexual exploitation, stalking, bullying, or harassment, including how to report the behavior.
What you can you do to protect your children from online abuse?
It is essential for parents to know what kinds of apps, social media outlets, and programs their children are using online. Protect Kids Online provides an overview of the different types of activities youth may be engaging in online, the corresponding risks, and what parents can do.
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has an excellent guide on how to engage children and youth around topics related to online safety.
Parents need to educate their children on how to use the internet and social media in a safe way and keep tabs of what their children are doing online. This of course is easier said than done. But here are some resources that offer suggestions and strategies that you may want to use.
- Cybertip!ca – Provides parents with age appropriate tools for children of all ages, from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
- Protecting Children’s Privacy Online – A Guide for Parents, Care-givers, and Educators. An up-to-date (2016) resource that gives practical how-to information for safer use of both computers and mobile devices.
- CommonSenseMedia.org – offers lots of resources on parenting and online safety.
*Posting, sharing, or possessing intimate images of anyone under the age of 18, even with the minor’s consent, is child sexual abuse and is a crime. If you are aware of child sexual abuse images (child pornography) contact the police or report it at www.cybertip.ca