Keeping Kids Safe Online
The Crisis of Online Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation
Recent increases in the demand for and reporting of “online child sexual abuse material” (CSAM), previously referred to as “child pornography,” have been unprecedented. Live-streaming of this illicit material on the dark web and the hijacking by predators of popular technology platforms used by youth to groom and entice them in sexually abusive/exploitive acts demonstrate the critical need for effective primary prevention strategies to combat these growing threats to child safety.
Reports of online CSAM have been increasing exponentially. Consider that in 2008, NCMEC received 100,000 reports of CSAM. A decade later, 18.4 million reports involving 45 million images were received. In 2019, 69 million images were identified by tech companies and the public. During the pandemic, the F.B.I. and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) released sobering warnings about the increased risk of online child sexual abuse. Reports of online enticement rose 93% in the first six months of 2020, compared with 2019, and in March 2020 alone, NCMEC received over 2 million reports of CSAM.
As online systems are flooded with illegal CSAM, distributors grow even bolder reaching out to mainstream audiences to draw more users. Law enforcement and public health officials have now declared child sexual abuse and online exploitation “a pandemic within a pandemic.”
It is important to note that while the increase in online CSAM is alarming, children remain most vulnerable to in-person contact abuse by family members and those in positions of trust, including intimate partners and other peers. Much CSAM on the internet is produced by abusers who record the abuse and then post it on the dark web to share with other pedophiles, but a significant portion is also produced by minors themselves, who may be groomed by someone they know either online or offline to produce the material, which then is shared with or without the minor’s consent. Consider that 67% of online CSAM imagery appears to have been taken in a home setting.
During the pandemic, stay-at-home orders kept many safe, but they also placed many children at increased risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. For the first time ever, the National Sexual Assault Hotline reported that half of its calls during the pandemic were from minors. Two-thirds of children said their abusers were family members; 79% said they were living with the person hurting them.
Teachers, school nurses and social workers normally make up the largest group of mandated reporters (21% of 4.3 million referrals in 2018.) Virtual learning, however, reduced opportunities for these professionals to detect signs of abuse in their students. Sharp decreases in reports to Child Protective Services were the result. Opportunities for children to disclose abuse and safety concerns to these trusted adults were essentially shut down.
Compounding the risk, children are spending an unprecedented amount of time online, while most parents are occupied with working from home or traveling to their essential jobs, unable to supervise children consistently while they are online. In fact, two-thirds of parents don’t talk to their children about vital online safety concerns.
Prevalence of Online Child Sexual Abuse
According to a new study, 16% of young adults in the U.S. have experienced at least one type of sexual abuse online before the age of 18, and most of the perpetrators were people known to them offline, including peers and intimate partners (Finkelhor et. al 2022). You can read more about this study in the infographic below or at this article.
How Parents Can Fight Back and Protect Their Children
Did you know that:
- Only 1/3 of households with internet access use filtering or blocking software. (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)
- 75% of children are willing to share personal information online about themselves in exchange for goods and services. (eMarketer)
- 71% of all parents reported that they stop monitoring their child’s use of the internet after their child turned 14, not knowing that most of all internet-related missing children are 15 years of age or older. (“Protecting Our Children” website: Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office)
- One in five U. S. teenagers who regularly use the internet said they have received unwanted sexual solicitation via the Web. Solicitations are defined as requests to perform sexual activities or sexual talk, or to give personal sexual information. (University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, 2001).
According to the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center:
- 77% of the targets for online predators were age 14 or older. Another 22% were under 13.
- Only 25% of solicited children were distressed by their encounters and told a parent.
- Only 17% of youth and 11% of parents could name a specific authority, e.g. police, FBI, the CyberTipline, and internet Service Providers, to which they could report an internet crime.
The Crimes Against Children Research Center had this to say about online predators:
“The publicity about online predators who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate. Internet sex crimes involving adults and juveniles more often fit a model of statutory rape – adult offenders who meet, develop relationships with, and openly seduce underage teenagers – rather than a model of forcible sexual assault or pedophilic child molesting. This is a serious problem, but one that requires different approaches from current messages emphasizing parental control and the dangers of divulging personal information.
Developmentally appropriate prevention strategies that target youth directly and focus on healthy sexual development and avoiding victimization are needed [in addition to the privacy and avoidance messages that young children currently receive . These should provide younger adolescents with awareness and avoidance skills, while educating older youth about the pitfalls of relationships and their criminal nature.”
-Wolack, J., Finkelhor, D., Mitchell, K., Ybarra, M. (2008). Online “Predators” and their Victims: Myths, realities and Implications for Prevention and Treatment. American Psychologist 63(2), 111-128 (CV163)
Sexting is sending sexually explicit messages via text message or social media messaging apps. As technology has advanced and cell phones have the capacity to record and send photos and video, and smart phones contain social media apps that children frequently use, the practice of sending suggestive and explicit pictures has increased, especially among teens.
- It should be noted that the vast majority of youth who are sexting are sending sexually explicit or suggestive photos to peers, romantic partners or acquaintances rather than to strangers.
- Teen girls are only slightly more likely than boys to sext and children as young as 10 do engage in this behavior.
- According to one survey, a higher percentage of youths received either nude/nearly nude photos or sexually explicit photos of others, compared to youths that had created nude/nearly nude or sexually explicit images. This implies that a relatively small number of images are being circulated. Prevention education is key to teach teach teens what appropriate actions they should take when they receive an image; i.e. deleting the image versus keeping it in circulation.
- You should be aware that sending or possessing nude/seminude pictures of minors may violate laws in your state and, in some states, is legally considered “child sexual abuse material”. In many cases the legal ramifications for a minor sexting, either pictures of him/herself or passing along the sexts of another minor, are quite serious. For more information regarding the laws on sexting in your state call or visit your local District Attorney’s office.
Now That You Know, What Can You Do?
The key is to supervise your child’s internet activity and ultimately help them become responsible users.
After educating yourself about technology and the internet, it is very important to start a conversation with your child about the benefits and risks of using technology.
Work together with your children to establish age appropriate ground rules for internet usage. By involving your children in the discussion about rights, responsibilities, privacy, and personal safety, not only will they be more likely to follow your family’s rules, you will also be helping them develop their own knowledge and personal standards of internet safety.
As technology changes and your children grow older, you will want to revisit your family’s ground rules and continue educating your children on how to protect themselves, their private information, and how to be responsible users of technology.
Tips for Parents
Support your kids in being safe online
- Stress to your children that the rules are to protect them, not to control them.
- Keep the children you care for safe online. Monitor which sites and applications they are using. Have age-appropriate conversations with them about online safety.
- Set ground rules for when and how often children can be online, including from computers, smartphones, tablets such as iPads, and other devices; enforce consequences.
- Talk to your children about what sites and apps they are using and ask them to show you what their privacy settings are. They should not allow people who they don’t know in real life to view their content or send them messages via Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. They should also turn of “location services” in Snapchat, which allows people who follow the child/teen to view a map that shows where the child/teen is geographically.
- Tell your children that they should never add as a friend, follow or connect with anyone they do not know in real life. Just because someone’s profile picture makes it appear they are your child’s age, doesn’t mean they are. Predators often pose as children to meet children or teens online.
- Explain to them that they should never post or share photos of themselves not fully clothed. Explain there are bad people who will use those pictures in bad ways, and that once a picture is posted on the internet, it can never be deleted.
- Explain to your teenagers that they should never take nude pictures of themselves and/or send it to anyone they know, even someone they are dating, or a friend. The person who receives the photos could share these pictures online without their permission.
- Explain to your children that they should never post information online that would allow someone they don’t know to find or stalk them: including their home address, an identifiable place where they go often, or a picture of the outside of your house.
- Consider purchasing third-party filtering software, such as Net Nanny. This type of software can be used to filter out harmful websites from being accessed on your child’s computer, tablet or smartphone. Net Nanny allows you to limit your child’s screen time to certain hours of the day, and allows you to block certain apps or websites and filter out pornography before your child sees it. Many of these types of software programs restrict internet access, monitor online activities, protect personal information, block chat features and are customizable to individual users. Other options may include customizing parental settings on your computer and/or browser. These filters will change and evolve as your children grow. Visit ConnectSafely.org for some guidebooks for parents on popular apps that children may use, such as SnapChat, Instagram and TikTok.
- If you choose to use Parental Monitoring Software (also called Spyware) strongly consider telling you children about it and explain why. “Building trust and respect around computer use is extremely important, so that your children will feel comfortable coming to you if an issue or problem does arise.” (Who’s Spying on Your Computer: Spyware, Surveillance and Safety for Survivors, NNEDV Safety Net Project, 2008)
- Remember that your household’s computer(s) is only one of many, many options for accessing online content. As appealing as it is to rely on restricting access and monitoring software, it is important to keep in mind that the more involved your child is in discussions of online safety, the more likely they will take those lessons to heart and apply the same concepts when they are not being monitored or restricted.
For more information for parents about keeping children safe on the internet, resources aimed at teaching children how to be safe on the internet, reporting information, and resources related to sexting and cyberbullying, browse the Internet Safety Resources section below.
Suggestions for young children and teens:
- Let your child know that the person they meet online may not be who they claim to be. A person with a profile of an 8-year-old boy may in fact be someone very different.
- Monitor profile information. Internet predators, scammers and identity thieves look at online personal profiles to find and research their victims. Even on child-friendly websites, kids should never reveal personal information about themselves, such as their name, age, address, gender, physical description, telephone number, photo or school information, unless you approve it. Even things such as screen names or user names should be carefully considered, as they may reveal more information than you intend. Parents and relatives should also be aware of what information they post about children on their own profile pages for the same reasons.
- Screen email and social media accounts. Do not allow your child to create new accounts or have multiple e-mail or social media accounts without your knowledge. Be aware that some children require more supervision than others and, depending on the child, you may want to insist they give you their email and social media passwords. Be aware, however, that all passwords – including yours – should ideally be changed every couple of months for security purposes; you may have to decide on a system for regularly changing and sharing passwords.
- Tell your child to let you know immediately if a stranger tries to contact them on the web, whether through an instant message, social media, a chat room, or email. Tell them that, while it may be a friend from school or a relative contacting them online for the first time, the only way to know for sure is to ask you.
- Tell them NEVER to agree to meet a stranger or a “friend they met online” in real life. Teach your kids to let a parent or trusted adult know if anyone online asks them to meet somewhere.
- Designate safe sites and apps. Ask other parents, your local librarian, etc. for the names of safe websites or apps for kids and check them out yourself before your child logs on. Then use the “Favorites” setting on your browser to set up a folder of websites that your child knows he or she has permission to visit, and have a “page” on your smartphone featuring only apps that the kids are allowed to use.
- Good habits start early; teach your children what they should look for in safe sites and apps, and what should serve as warning signs on the types of sites they should avoid. If you think you and your family could use a brush-up on internet skills, look into education programs such as i-SAFE to educate yourself.
Suggestions for older children and teens:
- Educate your teens on the importance of protecting their personal information; information such as their name, social security number, home address, phone number, the name of their school, pictures, credit card numbers or the names of family members. This is important not only for avoiding online predators but also many types of scams. Personal information should be given out judiciously and only to trusted sources.
- Educate your teens on how to asses a website for trustworthiness and authenticity. There are education programs, such as i-SAFE, that focus on media literacy, digital citizenship education for kids, teens, educators, and parents.
- Teach your children about email safety, e.g. never open files or follow links from people you do not know, never respond to e-mails with pornographic or other inappropriate material, do not respond to advertisements (some email marketing systems use a “Safe Unsubscribe” system but other times responding, even with a “please unsubscribe me” message only serves to confirm for the scammer that they have found a working email account.)
- Educate teens on appropriate online behavior for interacting with their peers; teach and reinforce that positive morals and values about how people should be treated also apply online. Cyberbullying, i.e. the “willful and repeated harm inflicted though the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices,” is a serious problem facing children and teens. Cyberbullying, compared to traditional bullying, can be particularly vicious because technology allows the bully to be anonymous. It’s also much easier for bullying to “go viral,” that is a large number of people can become involved in a cyber-attack on a victim or, alternatively, a specific attack can be made painfully public so that everyone knows about it. Finally, because cyberbullying is done at a physical distance, the bullies are insulated from the harm they are causing their victim. By not having to face their victim and see their response, bullies are less able to recognize the damage they are doing and the consequences of their actions. (Cyberbullying Research Center)
- It’s important to keep an eye on the interactions your children and teens are having with their peers and the effect those interactions are having on your children. An unintended consequence of having constant access to technology and communication is that children today are much more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, harassment, bullying and dating violence. You can read more about the mental health effect on teen girls of frequent social media use in an article from the Family Institute at Northwestern University.
Internet Safety Resources
To Report Child Sexual Abuse Material on the internet:
exit_to_app Cyber Tipline (for child porn or child exploitation)
To report child sexual abuse material (formerly referred to as child pornography) or child sexual exploitation on the internet, use the electronic Cyber Tip Line or call 1-800-843-5678. The Cyber Tip Line is operated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in partnership with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
exit_to_app Massachusetts Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force
Website: www.mass.gov/eopss/crime-prev-personal-sfty/internet-safety/icac-task-force.html Phone: 508-867-1080
Resources for Parents on how to protect children when they are using the internet:
exit_to_app Enough is Enough Guides for Parents
Enough is Enough has downloadable safety and prevention guides for parents on Pornography, Predators/Traffickers, Social Media, Online Gaming, Mobile Devices and Cyberbullying.
exit_to_app Tips for keeping Children Safe Online during COVID-19
UNICEF, WHO, CDC, Childhood USA
exit_to_app Staying safe online during the coronavirus pandemic
An article from Better Internet For Kids, which is dedicated to making the internet a safer place for young people.
exit_to_app How to Update Privacy Settings and Stay Safe Online
The National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) website provides instruction and direct links on how to update your privacy settings on popular devices and online services.
exit_to_app Connect Safely
A nonprofit dedicated to educating parents and the public about how to be safe on the internet, and features parent guidebooks regarding popular apps that children use, such as Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram.
Website: Connect Safely
exit_to_app Safe Kids
Safe Kids provides information and guidelines about how children can stay safe if they are using chat rooms.
Website: Safe Kids
exit_to_app The Family Online Safety Institute
The Family Online Safety Institute has guides for families including Good Digital Parenting, how to set guidelines for children around internet safety, how to talk to children about internet safety, and much more.
Website: The Family Online Safety Institute
i-SAFE is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and empowering youth (and others) to safely, responsibly and productively use Information and Communications Technologies (ICT).
exit_to_app 4 Easy Tips To Keep Kids Safe Online
4 Easy Tips To Keep Kids Safe Online from Verizon
Website: 4 Easy Tips To Keep Kids Safe Online
exit_to_app University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center
The mission of the Crimes against Children Research Center (CCRC) is to combat crimes against children by providing high quality research and statistics to the public, policy makers, law enforcement personnel, and other child welfare practitioners. Follow the link to learn more about their research into children’s safety online.
exit_to_app “A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety”
A downloadable publication by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Investigation prepared from actual investigations involving child victims, as well as investigations where law enforcement officers posed as children.
Website: A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety
Resources for Children About Online Safety:
exit_to_app Sammy’s Guide to Internet Safety
Created by The Internet Experts, and AT&T Preferred Dealer – this interactive guide for children will teach them what information can be shared online, what information should be kept private, and what to do in different situations online in a fun way.
Website: Sammy’s Guide to Internet Safety
exit_to_app Net Smartz Program
Created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NetSmartz is NCMEC’s online safety education program. It provides age-appropriate videos and activities to help teach children be safer online with the goal of helping children to become more aware of potential online risks and empowering them to help prevent victimization by making safer choices on- and offline.
- Kids – with videos, games, and activities aimed at educating young children about internet safety
- Other pages for Parents, Educators and Teens
Website: Net Smartz Program
exit_to_app Wise Kids
WiseKids is a UK-based not-for-profit company that works to increase technology literacy and safety awareness. Their “Young People” section is aimed at tweens and provide many great resources ranging from games, cool sites, homework help, safety tips and info on cyberbullying. Importantly, their resources are informed by an advisory pannel composed of young people and teens. Other pages available for Parents, communities, educators and businesses.
Website: Wise Kids
exit_to_app Federal Trade Commission – Social Networking Sites / Safety Tips for Tweens and Teens
A very straigt forward and informative fact sheet which speaks directly to tweens and young teens.
exit_to_app Internet Matters
Provides information to parents and children to help keep children safe online.
Website: Internet Matters
For more information about sexting, cyberbullying and electronic dating violence, go to:
exit_to_app Cyberbullying Research Center
The Cyberbullying Research Center is dedicated to providing up-to-date information about the nature, extent, causes, and consequences of cyberbullying among adolescents. This is an excellent, highly-recommended resource for parents, children, teens, and educators on a huge range of topics and issues.
Website: Cyberbullying Research Center
exit_to_app Your Complete Guide to Understanding Bullying in the Modern Age
Your Complete Guide to Understanding Bullying in the Modern Age from Everlast Recovery contains information about cyberbullying, and how bullying in general is about power and dominance, and sexual abuse by children of other children can be a type of bullying.
exit_to_app Local School Systems
Often your local school system’s website will have information and resources about school policies, how to prevent issues from arising, and how to respond if a problem does occur. Here is the Boston Public School’s anti-bullying page for reference.
Website: Boston Public School’s anti-bullying
exit_to_app Cyberbullying: A Resource for School Social Workers
– an article featuring an overview of cyberbullying, suggested actions for prevention and intervention, and links to resources for further education
exit_to_app Nonconsensual Image Sharing Isn’t Pornography — It’s Sexual Assault
Blog by USC School of Social Work MSW Staff
exit_to_app A Thin Line
Conversation on Sexting aimed at teens, with teens.
Website: A Thin Line
exit_to_app StopBullying.gov – What is Cyberbullying?
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Resources for Teens:
exit_to_app What’s OK?
What’s OK, a program of Stop It Now!, has a website and helpline that are free, confidential resources for helpful and accurate information about safe sexual behaviors. What’s OK offers space for teens and young adults to ask questions – no matter how difficult, sensitive and/or embarrassing – about their own thoughts, feelings, interests and behaviors or someone else’s.
What’s OK Helpline Hours:
Monday 12pm-8pm EST
Tuesday 12pm-6pm EST
Wednesday 12pm-6pm EST
Thursday 10am-6pm EST
Friday 12pm-6pm EST
Text WHATSOK to 1.888.532.0550
Call 1.888.PREVENT (1.888.773.8368)
Chat or Email here
exit_to_app A Thin Line
Get the facts about boundary-defying activities like sexting, constant messaging, spying and digital disrespect – so you’ll know where the line is, and be ready to draw your own. A Thin Line is active on Facebook, Twitter, G+ and more.
Website: A Thin Line
exit_to_app Federal Trade Commission – Social Networking Sites / Safety Tips for Tweens and Teens
A very straight forward and informative fact sheet which speaks directly to tweens and young teens.
exit_to_app Connect Safely
Connect Safely has great “Safety Tips” style resources including:
- Tips to Help Stop Cyberbullying,
- Tips for Strong, Secure Passwords,
- Safety Tips for GPS Location-Sharing,
- FAQ on ‘Sexting’ and ‘Sextortion’ (i.e. sending sexually explicit pictures or texts, sexual harassment, exploitation or extortion via smart-devices), This particular resource is directed at teens themselves but is a great general resources.
- Online Safety FAQ,
- Tips for Getting Cached Content Removed (i.e. even after content, for example sexually suggestive photos, is removed from, say, a social networking site, the content is still present in “cached” or archived, form.)
- Social Web Tips for Teens – a basic primer on using social networks appropriately, aimed at younger teens.
- Cellphone Safety Tips
- Top 10 Safety Tips for Video-Sharing
- Chat Room Safety Tips – very brief tip sheet for text chat rooms.
Website: Connect Safely
Get The Facts
Whether you identify as a victim, survivor, or as someone working through the trauma of sexual abuse, know that you are not alone, you are not to blame for what happened, and support is available to help you on your journey to healing.
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