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Sexual risk and harm

Teens and preteens are at the heart of the social Internet – also known as Web 2.0 – uploading and posting content, instant messaging, socializing on social networking sites, interacting with others in chat rooms, and connecting in virtual worlds and online multi-player games.

It is inevitable that at an age where young people are starting to explore their sexuality offline, they will do so online as well – it’s only natural. In fact, many teens feel safer and more confident flirting online than face-to-face. While these are developmentally normal behaviours for adolescents, conducting them in the globally connected, anonymous environment of the Internet poses special risks.

Sexuality in the Internet age

Despite all the panic over “stranger danger”, youth are far more likely to be harassed online by peers or people they know offline. A recent study of youth who had been targeted by online sexual predators revealed that less than 10 per cent of sexual solicitations were initiated by adults older than 21 years of age. Most came from people close to the age of their victims with online sexual solicitation most frequently happening between youth.

A recent phenomenon relating to young people and technology is “sexting”, where sexual, nude and semi-nude images are exchanged electronically. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, four per cent of 12-17-year-olds have sent these kinds of messages and 15 per cent have received them.

Typically, sexting occurs in three contexts: in lieu of sexual activity for younger adolescents who are not yet physically sexually active; to show interest in someone a teen would like to date; and, for sexually active youth, as proof of trust and intimacy. Exchanging sexual images may also be part of “truth or dare” game-playing among younger adolescents or goofing around while mimicking “sexy” media images.

Even though many young people consider this practice as “nothing important”, some, particularly girls, may feel forced to provide such pictures, and “nothing important” can quickly become “something important” if intimate images and messages are distributed to a wider audience.

Parents, schools and law enforcement agencies are grappling with how best to respond to this issue. In the United States, sexting amongst youth has resulted in teens facing child pornography charges. In Canada, although no young person has been charged with distributing pornography, there are still legal implications to such acts.

Experts have rightly raised concerns that heavy-handed responses to sexting may cause more harm than good by re-victimizing teens whose photos have gone viral or by humiliating young couples who are caught exchanging sexual images. Fear of recrimination, further embarrassment or harassment may make young people less likely to come forward when things go wrong.

To effectively deal with sexting, context should be taken into consideration. Adults need to be sensitive to the circumstances behind the image sharing: was it sent as a lark between friends? Was it intended as a private act between a couple? Was there any pressure involved or malicious intent? Depending on context, responses will differ.

For example, if sexting occurs as part of a romantic relationship or friends goofing around, parents need to talk to their kids about the downside of such behaviour. Where there is malicious intent parents, schools and law enforcement agencies may need to get involved. Under these circumstances, the main priority should be supporting and minimizing further harassment and humiliation of the young person whose image has been distributed.

Whether joking around or as part of a relationship, kids need to think carefully about what they post or transmit: once you press “send” an image is out of your control. The general rule of thumb for any image is to ask yourself, “Would I want my parents, teachers, neighbours, other kids to see this?” If you’re not careful, they might.

Online sexual predators

When most people think about sexual risk and harm on the Internet, sexual predators come to mind. Because of its sensational nature, the spectre of unscrupulous adults preying upon and sexually exploiting kids online gets a lot of media attention. Although this does happen, sensational headlines do not help us understand the nature and true extent of the problem or how to deal with it effectively.

The problem with numbers

Since 2002 (when the Canadian Criminal Code was amended to make contacting children online for sexual exploitation illegal), there has been a significant increase in reported cases. This is certainly cause for concern, but the truth is it’s difficult to tell whether this is due to an increase in the number of incidents, an increase in the number of cases that are reported, or a reflection of increasing numbers of young people going online.

What we do know is that in 2006 and 2007, 464 incidents of child luring on the Internet were reported by Canadian authorities. Of these, 122 cases were criminally prosecuted, resulting in 89 guilty verdicts. The accused were most often males between the ages of 18 to 34, according to Statistics Canada.

What strategies do online sexual predators use?

Contrary to the widespread belief that online predators “trick” kids, research shows they rarely lie about their age or their motives. Their tactic is not one of deception but of seduction: they will shower a youth with attention, sympathy, affection and kindness, in order to persuade him or her that they love and understand them. The majority of adolescents who accept invitations to meet in person do so knowing that they will be engaging in sex. For 73 per cent of these youth, this will become a recurring sexual relationship. (Few of these incidents – five per cent – are of a violent nature.) For more details, see Online "Predators" and their Victims (page 7).

Which youth are most at risk?

When it comes to online sexual exploitation, some youth are more at risk than others. Research indicates that 13- to 15-year-old girls are most vulnerable, particularly those who voluntarily place themselves in risky situations- by engaging in online discussions with strangers, flirting and talking about sex online, and by publicly posting personal and intimate information in Web environments such as social networking sites.

It’s important to remember that young people who are most at risk online also tend to be those who are most at risk offline: they include youth who engage in harmful or risk-taking behaviours in the real world, youth who are experiencing physical or sexual abuse, youth who are experiencing mental health difficulties and youth who have relationship difficulties with parents or caregivers.

How can you tell if your child is being targeted?

It is possible that your child is the target of an online predator or is being sexually exploited if:

  • They spend a great deal of time online alone
  • You find pornography or sexual photos on the family computer
  • They receive phone calls from people you don't know; or make calls (sometimes long distance) to numbers you don't recognize
  • They receive mail, gifts or packages from someone you don't know
  • They withdraw from family and friends; or quickly turn the computer monitor off or changes the screen if an adult enters the room

Safety tips

As parents, we want to foster resilience in our kids, starting when they’re young. This can be done by teaching them how to handle harassing messages or requests that make them feel uncomfortable – on the Internet or in the schoolyard – and, as they get older, by teaching them how to spot and respond to emotional manipulation. The good news is that most teens are effectively handling online requests from strangers – the bigger Challenge is helping them handle sexual advances from people they know.

  • Talk to your kids about healthy relationships and the importance of not feeling pressured into doing things they don’t want to do – such as taking explicit pictures of themselves. There are numerous other ways of showing someone how much you care, which don’t imply pressuring one’s partner to engage in risky behaviours.
  • Tell your kids to talk to a trusted adult if they are being pressured or sexually harassed by anyone.
  • Remind them that if they forward or post a sexually provocative picture they can be held legally responsible for their actions.
  • Warn your child that there are people online who target adolescents to engage in sexual conversations.
  • Talk to them about why adults having sex or forming romantic relationships with underage adolescents is wrong.
  • Help them recognize grooming tactics – does an online friend seem too perfect?
  • Make it clear to your child that if he or she wishes to meet a virtual friend in person, it must be in the presence of a trusted adult.
  • For younger adolescents, ask them to give you their instant messaging or social networking passwords, promising them that you would only access their accounts in the event of a problem.
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Additional Resources

Online "Predators" and their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention and Treatment (American Psychologist, February/March 2009)

Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies: Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, 2008)

Sexting, Teens And A Proposed Offence Of Invasion Of Privacy (Andrea Slane, IP Osgoode)

Trends in Arrests of “Online Predators” (Crimes Against Children Research Center, 2009)

Sex and Tech: Results from a Survey of Teens and Young Adults (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2009)

Teens and Sexting (Pew Internet & American Life Project)