How to keep your children safe from online exploitation — and spot if they’re being targeted
You think your tween is snapchatting with a friend but someone they don’t know might be grooming them for the sex trade.
That’s what happened to Alaya McIvor, a survivor of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
At just 12 years old, she was groomed on MSN messenger and Yahoo chat sites.
“Social media is a breeding ground,” McIvor told Global News.
“A lot of people won’t realize that they are the victims of this crime,” McIvor said. “It’s something that a lot of victims never expected, but they are continuously being victimized.”
“It could happen to anyone.”
Eight years later, McIvor is doing everything she can to prevent other people from being targeted like she once was.
McIvor now travels across the country educating and informing Canadians about sexual exploitation and human trafficking so they can identify it, often speaking to students.
Afterall, she knows the signs of a predator, but instead of MSN and Yahoo, McIvor says grooming is now happening on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.
She highlights “love bombing” tactics — over-the-top displays of affection and promises of items such as cellphones and nice shoes — as strategies predators use to groom their victims.
“I’m seeing a lot of it online and a lot of vulnerable people that don’t even realize that they’re vulnerable,” McIvor said.
What can you do to protect children?
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP) wants anyone watching over children to realize they have a responsibility to keep them safe.
“When it comes to the safety of kids, everybody has a role, from the systems … to each and every person,” director of the Child Safety and Family Advocacy Division at CCCP Christy Dzikowicz said.
“We really want to motivate people to be the eyes and the ears for parents who can’t always be, or the police, or the systems …. it’s up to all of us to sort of get engaged and kind of keep our eye out and be on the lookout for kids.”
Dzikowicz said it’s important to monitor what your children are doing online and have constant conversations with them about who they are having contact with.
“How do they know them? Do they actually know them? Just because someone’s your friend in a social media app, doesn’t actually make them your friend in real life, so having those conversations are huge,” Dzikowicz said. “All young people are vulnerable.”
With social media and numerous handheld devices now available to children, offenders can talk to hundreds of girls and boys at once, Dzikowicz said.
“When offenders are trying to gain access to kids, what’s happened is the online world has given them a completely unprecedented access, so in the past, kids were targeted when they were vulnerable and on the street … now offenders can target them online, and they can do so at a rate which is unbelievable.”
LISTEN: Why it’s never too late to ask for help
Dzikowicz said parents need to help their children understand how people can manipulate relationships that don’t seem dangerous in the beginning, but could end that way.
“A 14-year-old girl being approached by an adult male might feel kind of threatened by that and vulnerable, [but] when they’re online, they feel somehow this sort of false sense of security,” Dzikowicz said.
“Children are at a disadvantage when they’re dealing with adults, especially adults who are motivated to cause harm, they can be manipulated in those situations, and so it’s something for us to be aware of.”
She wants parents to know that sometimes, children feel like they’re too deep into a dangerous situation to ask for help.
“No matter what’s happened so far, no matter what you’ve agreed to, or what communication you’ve had with somebody, it’s never gone too far,” Dzikowicz said.
“Kids tend to get into situations where they feel like everyone’s going to blame them for an activity, maybe they’ve taken a few risks and gotten into a situation where they feel at fault, they need to understand when it’s an adult and a young person, they’re never at fault, no matter what they’ve engaged in at any point in time.”
Here are some other tips to increase your child’s safety from the CCCP:
- Understand Child Sexual Abuse and Grooming
When children are groomed by an acquaintance or family member they are less likely to disclose the abuse so it is important to understand how to recognize signs of misconduct in order to intervene as soon as possible.
- Establish Boundaries
If your child wants to listen to adult conversations about adult decisions and adult-related topics, gently re-establish the line.
- Monitor Exposure to Adult Topics
Set limits around the multimedia content that your child is exposed to, including television, music, internet, games, etc.
- Avoid Involving Your Child in Adult Relationship Issues
Keeping adult relationship issues separate from your child draws a line between his/her role and your role, which helps build the child’s sense of security.
- Do Not Force Affection
Remember that teaching respect does not mean teaching obedience, so if your child wants to avoid physical affection, respect their decision.
- Establish Personal Space and Privacy
Support family privacy for using the bathroom, bathing and changing.
Cybertip.ca is Canada’s tipline for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children. On average, the site receives over 3,000 reports and 80,000 page views each month.
Any information sent in about a child who could be in need of protection is sent to child welfare. All reports concerning incidents that could violate the Criminal Code of Canada are sent by the CCCP to police for possible investigation.
“So if you see, you know, an ad, for example, online, that seems concerning, you see a child who may be positioning themselves online and putting themselves at risk, that’s information that can get reported through Cybertip.ca,” Dzikowicz said. “It can be done anonymously and we can get that information to police.”
LISTEN: Police share message for young people
Police increasing online surveillance
A report commissioned by the Canadian Women’s Foundation shows most sexual exploitation is now arranged online. This is concerning because online interactions facilitate the sale of younger victims who can’t be identified as obviously on the streets by law enforcement.
That’s one of the reasons police are stepping up their online surveillance efforts.
“Our counter-exploitation team is not just doing the outreach on the street, they’re also doing a lot of outreach through social media now,” Insp. Kelly Dennison from the Winnipeg Police Service said. “We’ve had to adapt a little bit to the way the times have changed.”
“High-risk victims or youth that are on our streets that are at a high likelihood to be exploited, they’re very involved in social media.”
The Winnipeg Police Counter Exploitation Unit (CEU) frequently uses social media to interact with at-risk children to build trust and eventually, connect them with resources.
As social media becomes more of an issue, Dennison said police are increasing their outreach online.
“We have to continue to get a greater online presence, we have to continue to reach out to these kids in outreach, not just physically on the streets, we have to be able to do that with the use of social media,” Dennison said.
What about other people’s kids?
If you see an interaction between an adult and a child that does not seem right, or if something looks wrong online, Dzikowicz said people need to step up and report it.
“The problem is, we’re letting those who aim to harm them have too much power because we’re sitting back a little bit,” Dzikowicz said.
“People have this sense that they have to mind their own business, that it’s none of their business if they see something concerning, and that’s just not true when it comes to kids.”
“I really do want someone to step in if they see some risky behaviour, if they see something concerning. I know that’s how our kids are going to make it through, is by us all being invested… I’d rather you be wrong and raise a concern, and we can check it out, than for all of us to miss something because we’re all afraid of overstepping.”
LISTEN: Here’s what to do if you’re concerned about a child
Dzikowicz recommends parents or guardians share these resources with their children to teach them more about safety.
Teatree Tells: A Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Kit, designed to help teachers, early childhood educators and parents of children four to six years old, learn more about the issue of child sexual abuse.
The Be Smart, Strong and Safe initiative, helping children in Grade 5 and 6 understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, as well as personal boundaries.
Commit to Kids providing policies, strategies, and a step-by-step plan for reducing the risk of child sexual abuse, while encouraging organizations to take an active role in protecting children in their care.
Here is a quiz you can try to test your knowledge about child safety.
If you know about a child who is in immediate danger or risk, call 911 or your local police.
Need help right now? Call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, an anonymous and confidential counselling service. If you’re in Manitoba, text “connect” to 686868 to be connected with a crisis responder.
This Human Trafficking Hotline (toll-free) 1-844-333-2211 provides 24/7 support and counselling to anyone being trafficked or affected by trafficking.
If you know of a child that is being harmed or neglected, call the 24-hour emergency child welfare number at 1-866-345-9241
Contact the Canadian Centre for Child Protection for help finding the proper support services in your area.
The SAFoundation supports women and children who have been affected by human trafficking and exploitation. Call them toll free at 1-866-876-6SAF.
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