Statistically, the chances of your child being approached online by a sexual predator are low, yet it remains a top parental concern. Canadian statistics around Internet-based child sexual exploitation show that between 2006 and 2007, a total of 464 incidents of child luring were reported to police. In 2006, the U.S.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children conducted a study showing that one in seven children will be solicited sexually online, but most of those contacts are from peers, rather than strangers, and the contacts were not worrisome to the child.
This is where “don’t talk to strangers” comes into play yet again. Your children may not understand that this rule applies just as much to the cyber world, so make sure they know that it is never okay to meet an ‘internet friend’ in the real world.
A particular worry is for any child that discusses sex with strangers online—this has been shown to lead to even more offline meetings. Should a stranger approach your child online to talk about sex, please report it to Canada’s National Tipline at www.cybertip.ca or 1-866-658-9022. Teach your children to report any request for “A/S/L”—which stands for “age, sex and location” or anything like that to you or to another trusted adult.
A relatively new phenomenon, “sexting” is when a sexual image or video is sent electronically. Commonly an image is created using the built- in camera or video camera on the cell phone, then sent to others as a multimedia messaging service (MMS) message. Pew Research reports that four per cent of cell-phone-owning teens have sent sexts and 15 per cent have received them. Amanda Lenhart of Pew describes the purpose of such sexual imagery as a kind of “relationship currency” used to build intimacy, signal availability, or romantic interest. Pew’s study breaks down sexting scenarios to three types:
Exchanges of images solely between two romantic partners; Exchanges between partners that are then shared outside the relationship; Exchanges between people who are not yet in a relationship, but where often one person hopes to be.
Where it gets particularly scary is that the image might be considered a form of child pornography, putting both the creator and the recipient in legal hot water. Once that photo leaves the computer or cell phone, it cannot be pulled back. Often, young girls are being pressured by older boys at their school to create these photos in a sort of hazing episode. In New Zealand, a 12-year-old girl was being blackmailed to produce these images by someone who had erased her account in an online gaming world. Law enforcement is highly aware of this trend but somewhat conflicted in how to proceed. Their job is to stop the creation of child pornography, but when the creator is a child and also a possible victim, the next step can be difficult to discern. We’re starting to see the legal system take a more balanced approach to dealing with these situations, offering counselling and community service where, even a few months ago, there might have been jail time or being placed on the sex offender registry.
Porn, Gambling, Racism, Anorexia, and Hate Sites
The darkest corners of the Internet world include some dangerous and illegal elements. Research has shown that most children have seen online pornography by the age of 11.5. Without parental controls or browser filters, it’s almost inevitable your child will run into something you and he/ she will find upsetting. Make sure your child knows to tell you when and if that should happen and reassure them you won’t be angry if it does. The most important thing is to address and prevent it from happening again.
Some children and teens may become curious about sites featuring racist or hate messages, or promoting risky or damaging behaviours such as anorexia and cutting. You may only discover this by regularly checking your computer’s browser history or reviewing your Norton Family data. Even a single visit should prompt you to talk to your child about it. Don’t assume it was idle curiosity. Explain your house rules about such sites and ask your child about their motivation for visiting. As you talk, if your child reveals issues, such as depression or self-loathing, don’t delay in getting your child professional help from a therapist or other trained specialist to deal with such matters.