Protecting kids from abuse is no easy task. Children face an ever-increasing number of threats to their well-being, and protecting children from abuse is more difficult than ever in the internet age. Unlike physical signs of abuse and maltreatment, which are more easily recognized, the signs of online sexual abuse can be extremely difficult to identify.
It takes the focused efforts of compassionate caregivers, parents, and professionals who contact children regularly to help identify and stop threats from online abusers. Here’s what you need to know to protect our youth against the very real dangers of online sexual abuse.
How Many Kids Use the Internet Daily?
Internet exposure brings a risk of online threats and predators. Unfortunately, that means this risk extends to most children across every age range. It should come as no surprise that teens have the most internet exposure — almost all teens use the internet daily, according to the PEW Research Center.
- 97% of all kids (ages 3-18) have home internet access
- 78% of children aged 9-11 use or interact with a tablet
- 62% of children aged 3-4 use or interact with a smartphone
- 49% of children aged 0-2 use or interact with a smartphone
Online Dangers for Kids
As adults, we understand that internet usage is not without danger. We understand that scammers and criminals may be trying to download malware to our computers or access passwords or credit card information.
But for kids, understanding and identifying online dangers is more difficult. Malware can masquerade as a game, for example. Or the promise of winning free in-game points or real-life prizes could be enough to sway a young child to enter mom’s bank card.
For teens, social media use and popular internet forums add another layer of concern with cyberbullying and mental health risks.
Nearly half of all teens report experiencing cyberbullying, including:
- Offensive name-calling
- Spreading of false rumors about them
- Receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for (cyberflashing)
- Being harassed about location or activities
- Physical threats
- Having explicit images of themselves shared without consent
Some of these activities, such as cyberflashing or the sharing of explicit images without consent, go beyond the boundaries of cyberbullying and veer into a different type of online risk:
Online sexual abuse.
What is Online Sexual Abuse?
Online sexual abuse can be any type of sexual harassment, exploitation, or abuse that occurs through screens (computer, tablet, smartphone, or through a gaming system).
According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, forms of online sexual harassment or abuse include:
- Sending someone unwelcome communication about sex or hateful comments based on sex, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation.
- Sending partners, friends, acquaintances, or strangers unwanted requests for nude photos or videos or requests to livestream sexual acts.
- Performing sexual acts on a webcam without the consent of everyone involved or in inappropriate settings (like during an online class or online work meeting).
- Sharing private images or videos without the consent of everyone involved (also known as revenge porn or nonconsensual pornography — which, as of February 2021, is illegal in 46 states plus Washington, D.C.).
- Sharing porn in spaces where not everyone has consented to view it.
Online sexual abuse of a child includes various acts and situations where an adult contacts a child for sexual purposes.
This could include:
- An adult engaging a child in a chat about sexual acts
- An adult grooming children to enable their sexual abuse either online or offline
- An adult sending nude or pornographic images of themselves to a child or exposing themselves via live streaming
- Asking a child to view pornographic images/videos
- Asking a child to perform sexual acts, expose themselves or share a sexual image
- Taking or making and sharing or showing indecent images of children
How Prevalent is Online Sexual Abuse?
In a Swedish study of children aged 14-15, 48% of girls and 18% of boys reported that unknown adults had made contact with them via the Internet and made a suggestion of a sexual nature.
Unicef reports that 80% of children in 25 countries report feeling in danger of sexual abuse or exploitation online.
Researchers found the most vulnerable to online sexual abuse and grooming tended to be high-risk youths with a prior history of sexual abuse. Also at higher risk were children who use chatrooms, communicate with people they’ve met online, engage in sexual behavior online, and share personal information online.
Children victims of online sexual abuse consistently show signs of posttraumatic stress disorder following the ordeal, which often includes control, permanence (the feeling that the abuse is neverending), blackmail, re-victimization, and self-blame. The consequences of online sexual abuse are serious, and victims often need professional help.
How Can You Protect Kids from Online Sexual Abuse?
We all can play a role in protecting kids from predators seeking to abuse or exploit them sexually online. From parents and caregivers to the professionals who contact them daily, such as nurses, law enforcement, teachers, and volunteers, there are steps you can take to prevent, identify, report, and stop this form of child abuse in its tracks.
Parents who are vigilant about staying involved in their kids’ online worlds can be the first line of defense against abuse and exploitation. The U.S. Department of Justice recommends the following safety precautions for parents and caregivers to help keep kids safe online.
Know what apps your kids use and which sites they visit, and set up parental controls wherever possible. Periodically check their posts and profiles. Help your children block and report anyone who makes them uncomfortable.
Supervise young children’s Internet usage and keep electronic devices in open, common areas of the home.
Review games, apps, and social media sites before they are downloaded or used by children. Pay particular attention to apps and sites that feature end-to-end encryption, direct messaging, video chats, file uploads, and user anonymity, which are frequently relied upon by online child predators.
Teach children to avoid sharing personal information of any kind, including photos and videos. Encourage them to set boundaries and to say “no” when someone makes inappropriate requests in the real world and digital world.
Watch for potential signs of abuse, including changes in children’s use of electronic devices, attempts to conceal online activity, withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, anxiety, and depression.
Immediately report suspected online exploitation of a child by calling 911 and contacting the FBI at tips.fbi.gov.
Teachers, medical professionals, and volunteers are a few professionals who regularly come into contact with children. This is why many states place a legal duty on these professionals to report suspected instances of child abuse.
As a mandated reporter, you may be able to spot signs of abuse that a parent has missed and become a safety net for the children in your care.
Stay up-to-date with mandated reporter training. Training is available to help mandated reporters understand their duties as a reporter and to identify signs of suspected abuse, including online sexual abuse. Training can help you know how to file a report of sexual abuse and what to do with that report so you can stop the abuse.
Watch for potential signs of online sexual exploitation, including changes in a child’s use of electronic devices, attempts to conceal online activity, withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, anxiety, and depression.
Teachers may be in a particularly advantageous position to recognize signs of peer-to-peer online sexual exploitation or cyberbullying. You may notice a change in a student’s emotional state and friend group or pick up on conflict between students resulting from the sharing of explicit photo or video material, for example.
Protect Children From Exploitation and Abuse
We all have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us from abuse, whether that’s online or offline. Sexual abuse and exploitation of children happen to an alarming percentage of children, and as more and more children use the internet to play games, connect socially, and for school work, their risk continues to increase. Awareness of the issue is the first step to ensuring you can help keep children safe online. From here, you can take the steps necessary to protect the children you care about from becoming victims of online abuse and exploitation.