Parents have a lot on their minds lately, but it is easy to assume that online sexual abuse won’t happen to children, said Divina Haslam and Ben Mathews of The Conversation, a news and analysis website. The risk of online sexual abuse escalates as people spend more time using their devices during the pandemic.
Josh Shehan, vice president of NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division, warned that there are malicious actors who exploit the opportunity of more children staying at home and online with parents who are balancing homeschooling and work, quoted Fernando Alfonso III of CNN, an American news channel.
Report Tackles Children’s Exposure to Online Sexual Abuse and Inappropriate Content (2019)
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), a UK charity, found that the internet plays a central role in children’s lives, with five- to 15-year-olds who go online spending an average of 15 hours and 18 minutes online per week. 44% of kids aged five to 15 years owned a smartphone and 90% of 11- to 16 year-olds said they have a social media account, showing that social media is part of their childhood.
When those with social media accounts were asked if they have used a specific platform, 73% said Facebook, 65% answered Instagram, and 64% stated WhatsApp. Other platforms mentioned by the respondents were YouTube (60%), Snapchat (57%), Twitter (36%). Skype (19%), TikTok (17%), Twitch (11%), and Discord (7%).
The NSPCC and London Grid for Learning (LGfL), a provider of filtered broadband connection, network services, a common learning platform, and more, asked 21,648 primary school children and 18,186 secondary school kids aged seven to 16 years about the content they see online. 7% and 14% of primary and secondary school students saw discrimination or hate speech online, respectively.
The students had also seen bullying (25% of primary school students and 33% of secondary school students), violent videos/images (17% and 29%), and anything that encourages people to hurt themselves (16% and 19%). Further, 5% of secondary school students received sexual messages from an adult and 13% also received sexual messages from a young person. None of the primary school students received sexual messages from a young person or from an adult.
In a survey done by NSPCC and UK telecommunications firm O2, 15% of 2,059 youths aged 11 to 18 said they had received a request for a sexual image or message. The likelihood of the children to receive a request for a sexual image or message differed by age and gender. For example, 35% of 16- to 18-year-olds said they had received a request unlike 19% of those aged 13 to 15 years and 7% of 11 to 12 years. 21% of girls reported receiving a request compared to 10% of boys. Girls aged 16 to 18 years (52%) were more likely to report receiving a sexual image or message.
Where Does Online Sexual Abuse Occur?
It can occur across platforms including social media, text messaging, apps, and the dark web. In broad terms, online sexual abuse includes requesting a child to send sexual content, an individual sending a child sexual content, and sextortion. It can also include the creation, viewing, or sharing of child exploitation or abuse material.
How to Protect Your Child From Online Sexual Abuse
1. Have An Open Discussion About the Dangers Lurking In Cyberspace
Many children may not be aware of the dangers in participating in online chats or sharing pictures with strangers, stated Elizabeth L. Jeglic, Ph.D. of magazine Psychology Today, There are instances when the abusers may be individuals acquainted to your child. Hence, you should consider discussing the dangers of sharing inappropriate pictures with people.
Even if your child is not using social media, it does not mean they would not be a target of online sexual abuse. Abusers also use online games aimed at younger children such as Fortnite, which features on-line voice and chat functions or Roblox, which has an online chat function.
Most of these games employ parental controls to limit a child’s ability to chat with strangers and filter offensive and inappropriate contact for minors. Children can play and chat with their friends online, but if you choose to enable the voice and chat functions, instruct your child not to accept strangers as friends and tell them what to do if another player says anything uncomfortable.
2. Teach Your Child How to Respond to Sexual Innuendo or Unwanted Advances
You can start asking your child to enumerate examples of sexual innuendo, as well as statements and words that users might say online. Then, find ways to respond to sexual innuendo or unwanted advances. For instance, teenagers could leave the conversation or block acquaintances or strangers. They can also say, “I’m not into that kind of chat” or “No thanks, not interested” to any invitations or requests.
3. Talk About the Safe Sharing of Images
If you have a teenager, you might want to discuss the risks of sharing photos of themselves in provocative poses and revealing clothing. This should start early and get more developed as your child grows older, as child exploitation material is taken by teenagers or by people who know your child and shared more widely.
4. Check Which Apps and Websites Are Used by Predators
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department released a list of mobile apps it claims to be dangerous to kids, reported Scott Mcdonald of Newsweek, an American weekly news magazine. The list contained MeetMe, Bumble, Ask.FM, and more. Parents should remember that the list is not exhaustive and the apps and sites mentioned in the listed may change frequently.
You can check your child’s phone for these apps and delete them if you think it is dangerous. You can also discuss with your child about the dangers of having the apps installed on their phone. There are not many opportunities for your child to socialize during the pandemic so it is important for you to balance safety concerns and emotional well-being. Deleting an app may be recommended for younger kids but having a conversation about the risks and how to handle them may be a better alternative for teenagers.
Predators will leverage the pandemic and increased device use to prey on vulnerable children. Therefore, parents should exercise vigilance and brainstorm ways to keep their little ones safe from abusers online. If their child is a victim of online abuse, parents can contact their local police department or contact a helpline.