Children with poor psychological health, poor relationships with their parents, low self-esteem are more at risk of online sexual abuse. Picture: Pexels.
Children with poor psychological health, poor relationships with their parents, low self-esteem are more at risk of online sexual abuse. Picture: Pexels.

Be careful with photos, talk about sex: How to protect your children from online sexual abuse

By Divna Haslam Time of article published Jun 11, 2020

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Online sexual abuse occurs across many platforms including social media, text messaging, websites, various apps, such as WhatsApp and Snapchat and the dark web.

Very broadly, it includes asking a child to send sexual content, a person sending your child sexual content, “sextortion” (coercing or manipulating children for sexual gain), and viewing, creating or sharing child exploitation/ abuse material (sometimes inappropriately referred to as “child pornography”).

Who are the abusers?

Online abusers are most likely to be Caucasian males who are attracted to prepubescent children.

They differ from in-person abusers in that they are less likely to have easy physical access to children, have higher internet use, higher levels of education, and are less likely to have a criminal history. However, some people abuse children both online and in person.

Importantly, some online sexual abuse is also committed by other adolescents under the age of 18, creating and sharing sexual images.

Some image sharing occurs in genuinely consensual peer relationships, and this is generally not abusive. However, any coercion to share sexual content constitutes abuse.

Which children are most at risk?

Children with poor psychological health, poor relationships with their parents, low self-esteem, and those who have been exposed to other forms of abuse, are more at risk of online sexual abuse.

Age-wise, girls aged 11 to 15 are at the highest risk for child exploitation, although it also happens to very young children.

Tips for protecting your child

Here are some practical steps you can take to minimise the risks facing your child online and to help them safely navigate online challenges.

These are based on known patterns of online abuse and identified factors that place children at greater or lesser risk.

  • Take care with photos. Consider who you allow to take photos of your children and where you share photos to ensure they don’t get misused.
  • Talk openly to children and teens about sex so they don’t seek out advice or information online from individuals. Children who are knowledgeable may be less likely to be targeted. In particular, talk about consent, and what is consensual behaviour between kids, and what is not.
  • Talk with teens about the safe sharing of images. This includes the risks associated with sharing photos of themselves in provocative poses or in revealing clothing. This conversation should start early and get more developed as your child grows up. A lot of child exploitation material is taken by teens or by people known to the children then shared more widely.
  • Be interested in the online lives of your children and know their online friends. Do this routinely, just as you do with their real-life friends. Be attentive to changes or special friends. Keep these conversations going. Listen to their experiences
  • Encourage attendance at school-based prevention programs. And then talk with your kids about what they’ve learned to reinforce the messages or answer any questions.
  • Talk with your kids about how to respond to sexual innuendo or unwanted advances and when to tell an adult. Start by asking kids for examples of sexual innuendo and the types of things people might say online. Then brainstorm ways the best ways to respond. For example, teens could withdraw from conversations or block acquaintances. Or say something like “I’m not into that kind of chat” or say “No thanks, not interested” to any invitations or requests.
  • Talk with teens about online safety. This includes restricting who can view or reshare posts. You may need to upskill yourself first.
  • Know what your child is doing online. Monitor their online behaviour, rather than relying only on software controls, which are less effective.
  • Keep the computer in a communal area. Ensure their computer use occurs in communal areas of the home and restrict kids’ access to mobiles at night. If possible, do this from an early age and make it routine, so teens don’t get the message you don’t trust them.
  • Build your child’s esteem and confidence. Children with low self-esteem are more susceptible to online grooming designed to make children feel special.
  • Meet your own needs. Children are at greater risk of abuse when parents are struggling with their own mental health or substance issues. If you need help get support or talk to your doctor.

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