As the novel coronavirus continues to keep kids cooped up indoors, there’s been a rise in the online sexual exploitation of Canadian children, according to a national tipline.
Cybertip.ca says it saw a 66 per cent spike in reports in April compared to the three previous months. 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.
Now, there’s a new type of predator to worry about, according to Cybertip.ca. They call themselves “cappers” and they trick children into committing sexual acts over livestream while secretly recording a video, which they then use to blackmail the child for more sexual images or money.
There are also cappers who simply record the sexual act without ever telling the child they’ve done so and then exchange the video with other offenders in online forums.
According to Catherine Tabak, Cybertip.ca program manager at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, cappers are sharing tips and tricks for successfully engaging in this activity on various web forums.
There’s even a “how to cap manual” and explanations on how to use “bait videos” to trick children into believing they’re chatting with a friend.
These conversations typically start on popular social media platforms like Instagram Snapchat, Omegle, Chatroulette and Skype, Tabak said.
“What we see through the tipline is typically children ages 13 to 17 (targeted),” Tabak said.
“However, the capping community targets all individuals. Their intent is to essentially capture imagery or video of victims so they can build their collection and use that in the trading among the offender community.”
Tabak and her team at Cybertip.ca have identified a few red flags that could indicate a child is interacting with a capper.
“Change in behaviour is a big one,” Tabak said.
One major difference would be a child “isolating themselves in certain locations in the home more than they would normally — like the bedroom or the bathroom.”
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.
“People who have been convicted of these crimes… they talk about how they had a chance,” Fedoroff previously told Global News.
“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.”
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, he said.
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 (coronavirus) crisis,” he said. “They can go online and anonymously find out what sort of treatment is possible.”
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, Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua, a national charity that aims to teach children science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, previously told Global News.
“Please make sure you’re having conversations about online safety with your kids because they’re spending more time online,” Flanagan said.
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.
“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.
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.
Try to avoid taking away devices if something bad happens, Flanagan says.
“That’s their only connection right now to the outside world,” she said.
Instead, she recommends using the moment as a teaching opportunity to discuss what went wrong and how it can be avoided in the future.
A 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 911 if a child is in immediate danger.