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Kids are online more than ever during the pandemic, creating ‘opportunity’ for predators

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With schools closed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, children across Canada have been at home for weeks ⁠— and they’ve had more time than usual to spend online.

As a result, Cybertip.ca, an online sexual exploitation of children tipline, says it saw a 66 per cent spike in reports in April compared to the three previous months.

Cyber exploitation is typically sexual in nature, and it can include anything from sexually suggestive messages to sending sexually explicit videos, or trying to lure a child offline to meet in real life.

“We typically receive [about] six reports a day. Now, [we’ve been getting] about 10 reports a day,” said Stephen Sauer, director of Cybertip.ca, which is operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
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READ MORE: Bobcaygeon man charged with 2 counts of child luring following online investigation: OPP

The tipline processes reports from the public about potentially illegal material, including child pornography or online luring, and aims to act as a “triage” for law enforcement and child welfare, Sauer explained.

“If we believe there’s a child [who] needs protection, we’ll forward it on to that particular jurisdiction to get that information in their hands so they can actively protect that child,” Sauer said.

There are two likely explanations for the recent spike in reports of cyber exploitation, Sauer said. One is that kids are spending more time online because they’re at home practising physical distancing. The second is that offenders know more kids are online, and are taking advantage of it.

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“There is chatter online amongst the offending community that they see this as a great opportunity,” Sauer said, explaining that if parents are working from home, children may be unsupervised on the web.

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The agency doesn’t have data on how many of these reports turn into substantiated, criminal claims, Sauer said, but the increase in reports is of concern.

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The RCMP also said it is aware that the “COVID-19 pandemic may intensify safety issues for youth who witness or who are victims of violence at home,” but doesn’t yet have data indicating an increase in reports.

It can take time for such offences to be seen and reported, a spokesperson for the RCMP said, adding that “child grooming and luring also takes a certain amount of time.”

“What we have seen is chatter in dark web forums indicating that offenders see the pandemic as an opportunity to commit more offences against children,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

What is cyber exploitation?

There are three common types of offending behaviour reported to Cybertip.ca, Sauer said.

The first is extortion, where the offender will convince a child to engage in sexual activity and take photos or videos for the offender. The offender then uses them to threaten that child.

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“They [tell] them that they’re going to send the initial video to family or friends … if they don’t provide additional videos or images,” Sauer said.
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The second type sees the offender procure sexual images or videos of the child, and then threaten to send it out if the child doesn’t send the offender a sum of money.

The third type of offender is looking to capture explicit images or videos of children “to use for their own sexual purposes or to share with the online offending community,” Sauer said.

“Often, this group will [quickly] move onto their next target.”

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Why predators act

According to Dr. Paul Fedoroff, a forensic psychiatrist and director of the Royal’s Sexual Behaviours Clinic in Ottawa, boredom and opportunity are two main factors behind why perpetrators of online sex crimes engage in predatory behaviour. The COVID-19 pandemic may be affecting some perpetrators’ routines online.

“People who have been convicted of these crimes… they talk about how they had a chance,” Fedoroff explained.

“They had access to a computer and they got onto a website, and one thing led to another. They were able to make connections that they might not have been able to do before the time of the internet.”

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READ MORE: Keep watch on your kids’ online activities while school’s out: Manitoba RCMP

Fedoroff, who is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of Ottawa, said most of the people he works with have little interest in actual contact with specific children. Instead, they are largely interested in viewing child pornography or sharing graphic content with others.

An objective at the Sexual Behaviours Clinic, Fedoroff said, is to prevent child sexual abuse by treating people with pedophiliac tendencies before they act on their interests. While Fedoroff works with clients who have been charged with sexual offences, he also treats people who have thoughts and urges, but don’t want to offend.

“We have posted some ads online telling people that we’re open for business, even during the crisis,” he said. “They can go online and anonymously find out what sort of treatment is possible.”

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Outside of internet-based offences, Fedoroff said there’s concern about more child abuse occurring in the home during the novel coronavirus pandemic. He said that most in-person abuse happens between a child and someone they know, like a family member.

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What’s more, this type of abuse is often reported in places where a child feels safe, like at school to their friends or teacher. With many schools temporarily closed, a child’s ability to get support may be limited.

“I think there is a general concern that that abuse is not being reported and the frequency that it would ordinarily be,” he said.

What parents can do

Much of what children know about the internet and how to use it safely begins with what their parents teach them.

While parents shouldn’t feel guilty about the added screen time during the pandemic, it’s important to have open communication with children. The RCMP has resources, including a video on cyber safety tips.

“Please make sure you’re having conversations about online safety with your kids because they’re spending more time online,” said Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua, a national charity which aims to teach children science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.

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Flanagan worries some children are entering the online space without any basic knowledge about privacy and security. An easy lesson parents can start with: don’t share personal information with strangers.

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“This means your name, where you live, how many siblings you have, what your parents are doing … any information that … could identify you,” Flanagan said.

READ MORE: How to keep your children safe from online exploitation, and spot if they’re being targeted

Kids also need to understand that sometimes, predators pose as children to gain access.

“They need to know [someone] could be impersonating another nine-year-old, and that’s a stranger who might have negative intentions … so be wary of who you speak to,” Flanagan said.

She recommends creating a “cyber contract” with your child, clearly outlining the dos and don’ts of internet use. Both of you can sign it and then leave it somewhere visible in the house for easy access.

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Try to avoid taking away devices if something bad happens. “That’s their only connection right now to the outside world,” Flanagan said.

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Instead, use the moment as a teaching opportunity to discuss what went wrong and how it can be avoided in the future.

The spokesperson for the RCMP also said the police force “encourages communities to stay alert and to report any suspicion of child abuse to their local police of jurisdiction,” and call 9-1-1 if a child is in immediate danger.

More safety measures required

While it’s important for parents to teach their children about cyber safety, advocates say there’s also more to be done on the side of web developers.

A recent report by CSA Group found that “policies and standards for online safety have not kept pace with the rapid evolution of technology.”

READ MORE: Online sexual exploitation of children rising amid COVID-19 crisis, Quebec police warn

Sauer agrees. He believes more needs to be required of individual video games, websites and social media platforms with regards to safety measures.

“One of the big things we’re noticing through the different platforms that individuals are using to sexually offend against children online is that there are often very [few] safety pieces in place on those platforms,” Sauer said.

Many sites and platforms lack proper age verification, proper moderation of comments and discussions, and proper channels to report inappropriate behaviour ⁠— all necessary tools to protect children, according to Sauer.

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“Part of it is on those companies to build their platforms appropriately for youth, especially when they’re advertising for youth to use the platform.”

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca & Laura.Hensley@globalnews.ca