Editor’s Note: In our two-part series on sex, Internet safety and kids we look at ways parents can combat the perils of social media, instant communication and exploitation online. Next week we will delve into the psychological impacts of pornography on youth.
In a world full of instant access to information and instant communication, parents need to speak to their pre-teens and teens about the implications of sending explicit photos to friends — sometimes known as sexting — according to Staff Sergeant John Guigon, from the Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit of the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT).
“I know it’s a difficult one. You need to trust your children, but really, unrestricted access to the Internet, I do not recommend it. Not at all,” he said. “You need to know your kids’ passwords. You need to know what applications are on their devices. What applications they have access to and you have to be able to know who your kids are talking to.
“I’m not sure if kids have the capacity to really understand the consequences of their actions. I believe there’s this perception of anonymity about online stuff and some privacy that really doesn’t exist. It seems to impact kids willingness to put stuff out there — that belief, that perception of anonymity.”
The organization MediaSmarts, based in Ottawa, offers parents tips on how to bring up the issue of sexting on its website, mediasmarts.ca where it defines sexting as “a recent phenomenon relating to young people and technology…where sexual, nude and semi-nude images are exchanged electronically.”
According to the website, sexting is more likely to have negative consequences when the young person has been pressured into being a participant. Boys are just as likely to send sexting messages as girls but are more likely to forward those messages to other individuals. MediaSmarts recommends parents talk to their kids about gender roles, healthy relationships and appropriate online behaviour.
An average of more than 3,300 reports are received each month by cybertip.ca — a national website for reporting online sexual child exploitation, operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP) — according to the Cybertip website. Imagery showing the sexual abuse of children makes up the bulk of the reports the CCCP investigates at 95 per cent.
According to Guigon, child pornography laws are not intended to punish kids who may be engaging in sexting.
“By the letter of the law, posting a nude image, for example, of a child under the age of 18 is child pornography. But that’s not the spirit of the law,” he said. “The spirit of the law is to target those offenders that are actually trafficking in it, creating it, et cetera — not for the kids who are putting it out there.
“No child is going to be arrested or charged for that kind of stuff. Even other kids who are doing this — same age peer self-exploitation doesn’t always result in child pornography related offenses. More likely it would be a harassment thing.”
Still, Guigon said kids and parents need to understand that once an image goes online, it never goes away.
“There’s nothing that the police can do. There’s nothing that your parents or school can do that’s going to erase that image from the net. It will always be out there,” he said.
“It’s about making kids understand that knowing somebody online is not the same as knowing somebody in real life. They believe it’s the same thing but it’s not. The people online are not the same in real life.”