Kids are online, and so are predators; tips and Sea to Sky Corridor support.
Those that don’t are undoubtedly exposed to a computer or their friends’ phones.
No matter how parents lock down these devices, it is likely our kids are seeing things that would shock parents because along with educational and entertaining content, predators are lurking online.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2020, the overall rate of online child sexual exploitation and abuse was 131 incidents per 100,000 children and youth, compared with 50 incidents per 100,000 children and youth in 2014.
And Stats Can acknowledges most such crimes go unreported.
Catherine Tabak, program manager with Cybertip.ca, Canada’s national tipline for reporting the online sexual abuse of children, said the organization’s advice for parents is for them to have an open line of age-appropriate communication about online dangers from when their children are young.
“Keeping that open dialogue will make teens more comfortable coming to their parents when they do find themselves in an uncomfortable situation online,” she said. “And so having that ongoing conversation, and even pulling things from the media, for example, just to stem a conversation and see where they’re at because you never know what they might disclose when you do open the door for that conversation,” she said.
Sextortion is an increasing concern in Canada, Tabak said.
In July alone, her organization received 322 reports of sextortion, in comparison to 85 incidents in July of 2021.
“The numbers have really skyrocketed. And we know that we’re still only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
With sextortion, the scenario typically unfolds on Instagram.
Offenders will first make contact on the app, and then have that conversation shift over to a platform like Snapchat. The conversation then escalates to sexual very quickly, she said. As soon as a teen sends a sexual image, threats will start with offenders asking for money, gift cards, or the like. The threat is that if the teen doesn’t send those things, the pictures will be shared publicly.
Boys 15 to 17 are the most common target of this threat.
Youth can feel very panicked about their family, friends or others seeing these photos and thus will give in to the threats.
Girls are typically asked to send more imagery.
Tabak’s advice for teens facing a sextortion situation is to stop all communication with the offender and don’t give in to the threats. Instead, turn to a safe adult or contact cybertip.ca or needhelpnow.ca, which can help them navigate it.
Giving in to the threats will just increase them, she said.
For young people, this can be an extremely scary situation that can feel like a crisis. The result can be tragic.
“That’s the concern … that we’re going to lose a lot of kids as a result of this. And we really need to push that messaging out to make sure that they know that there’s help out there for them.”
Be sharing aware, parents
While children’s exposure is a primary concern, parents and others may not realize that what they innocently post online could also be exposing their kids to exploitation.
Unfortunately, say experts, innocent pictures posted proudly by parents can end up on the dark side of the internet, being used and shared by predators.
“The misuse of pictures and videos and things like that, that parents might post to their blogs or social media accounts [that are then] used by the offending community to exploit those children is, is unfortunately, fairly common,” said Tabak.
She said the organization often sees content that was stolen from public social media accounts or from blogs that are then passed around on offender sites with sexualized comments made.
“We would always encourage parents to be mindful of what they’re posting and who they’re sharing that with.” Lock down accounts and look through friends lists frequently and unfriend anyone who folks don’t interact with and know personally, she said.
Another danger is that the landscape or the clothing in a photo can give away information about where exactly the child is, which can pose a real-life threat.
Hats with school or team logos, for example, are a common giveaway.
Tabak also said it is wise to be mindful of how children will feel as they get older with certain pictures online.
Potty training or a bath photo might seem cute, but is the child going to feel discomfort or exploited later on?
Tech and government action needed
Ultimately, Tabak said while the focus is often on parents and youth behaviour, she would like to see more of a focus on the tech companies that run the platforms and the government that could better regulate them.
West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country MP Patrick Weiler told The Squamish Chief the online threats to kids are a particular concern for him as well.
He agreed with Tabak that there are things the federal government can do to make the online environment safer.
“Prior to the last election, we put out draft legislation targeting a few different sources of online harm, one of which was child exploitation. And we got some feedback on the draft legislation. But there were a lot of questions that the public had about it,” he said.
The government then launched a consultation and put together a group of 10 experts to take a closer look at the issue, including what other countries are doing to combat online abuse of kids. One of the members is the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, which operates Cybertip.ca.
Now that the information has been received, Weiler said the government aims to introduce legislation in the coming months.
He would like to see a system that requires tech companies to have a duty of care where children are concerned.
“What I would like to see happen is to have this system that is a somewhat similar system to what the U.K. has, where all social media companies have a duty to act responsibly, and that they have a system so that this content isn’t posted and shared,” he said.
Weiler said Canadians can be particularly vigilant against any restrictions on freedom of expression but hopes there is agreement that the blackmailing of children, like with sextortion, and the like, is not acceptable.
He pointed to the C–11, the Online Streaming Act and how it has become controversial and labelled by some as a “censorship bill.”
“Which it really is not,” he said, noting he wants to make sure that the upcoming online legislation is not misconstrued.
“We need to make sure — and I don’t think anybody can really argue that we [don’t] need to do what’s necessary to protect children online. And so, at a very minimum, this is a type of harmful content that needs special consideration. And social media companies need to have those systems in place to protect all Canadians, but with particular regards to any content that could exploit young people,” he said.
Shana Murray of the Howe Sound Women’s Centre Society agrees that government action is needed to protect kids better online, but she said these higher-up changes take time and will never fully protect kids.
“It’s never going to [be] enough to keep our kids safe. Our standpoint is that the more that we can educate and bring awareness to these issues to kids and parents, the better off we will be in the long run. Knowledge is power and will ultimately keep our kids safer and more aware of how to deal with these issues when they arise.”
The centre’s Youth Education Program includes a Violence is Preventable (VIP) presentation to students in the Sea to Sky Corridor in Grades 5 to 7. Murray said this program can and has also been offered to older grades.
“This focuses on consent, boundaries, sexting, legal consequences, sexual harassment, online bullying and more. This has been a very important area for the last number of years, given almost all kids in Grade 4 and up have cell phones with data,” she said.
Murray added that the centre is also hoping to do more teacher and parent presentations soon.
“As we have received requests and understand that these are important topics that often teachers and parents do not feel equipped to discuss.”
While Sea to Sky Community Services doesn’t have specific programs directed at online safety, a spokesperson said the organization is exploring the possibility of creating initiatives to educate our communities about cyber sextortion and human trafficking.
The spokesperson added that all Foundry Sea to Sky and Squamish Youth Services programs are opportunities for youth to connect and access support services.