By Emma Elshaw
With the whole world experiencing an unprecedented pandemic, with a vast array of advice coming from multiple directions – whether it be family, friends or politicians – and circumstances changing daily, the emotions of the world are likely as unprecedented as the pandemic itself. And coupled with the unprecedented nature of this pandemic is the opportunity it presents to online predators.
With the closures of business and the orders of physical distancing, the world has moved online. And predators are taking advantage of the situation. In fact, since the government issued an order to stay at home except for essential trips, there has been a rise in sexual exploitation: CBC reported at the end of April that reports of child exploitation were up 40%. Though kids and teens are not the only ones being targeted by online predators, they may be at a higher risk of being trafficked due to their potential lack of knowledge about online safety.
The way youth learn social behaviour has evolved in the age of the internet, as youth are spending less time interacting face-to-face and more time talking with friends online, and even more so with the emergence of this pandemic. Due to COVID-19, kids and teens are spending more time on their devices and particularly on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. They are now online for classes, and may also be spending more hours on online games and chat rooms to pass the time.
Children and teens thrive on interaction. Their brains are wired for social interaction. They are at a stage where they are constantly observing those around them in order to learn and pick up on popular social behaviour. Due to social distancing measures, it’s not just kids and teens that are stuck at home; so are the parents. As such, this is an opportune time for parents to be able to see just how much time their kids are spending online and to educate themselves about the strategies of online predators and traffickers. If parents set aside time to pay attention to what their kids are doing online, and who they are talking to, they just might be able to see the red flags that their kids may not see, and steer them away from danger before the unthinkable happens.
Some parents might think that their young ones are immune to the strategies of predators. “My kid knows how to be safe online,” they might say. But the reality is, anyone is vulnerable to being exploited online. Predators lure and groom kids in a way that attracts them; they speak their language. They know that kids and youth have a strong need for belonging and acceptance, and try to meet those needs through posing as a trusted friend. However, sometimes the tactics that predators use are much more direct; they might send explicit photos or even threaten a child or teen. If your child does send explicit photos of themselves to a predator, for whatever reason, that material can further be used to blackmail your child.
The false privacy and anonymity that the online world creates, particularly on social media platforms, is the perfect hunting ground for predators. What may seem like an obvious danger to us as adults may not be so obvious to a young person. Even if you have had discussions with your kids about the importance of online safety, it is crucial that the conversations are ongoing. It is vital that, as your kids grow and learn in an online world, that their knowledge of online safety also grows.
In the next two weeks, we will be sharing ideas and tips for you, as parents, to help your kids stay Safe@Home. These tips are designed to help you not only keep an eye on time spent online, but also to help you have conversations and interact with your kids in new ways. I hope they are helpful for you. Of course, every parent is different, and parenting in the online era will look different for each individual person, but these ideas are meant to be a starting ground for you. Check back next week as we will look at having helpful and meaningful conversations with your kids.
To report online exploitation, please go to cybertip.ca.
If your teen needs support in retrieving an image that they have sent online, visit needhelpnow.ca.