It probably comes as no surprise to you that many youth in the United States have fully integrated the Internet into their daily lives. In fact, according to the Pew Research Internet Project, 95% of teenagers are online.
For many youth, the Internet is a positive and powerful space for socializing, learning, and engaging in public life. Just as in any other public space in which youth interact, their behaviors are most strongly influenced by perceived social norms, reputation management, and a desire to socialize with others.
Minors face risk online, just as they do in other spaces in which people congregate: chatrooms and social networking sites are being used by pimps to recruit victims, boys and girls are being sold for sex on classified ads and escort sites, and child pornography can be shared widely and instantly. Just like a school hallway or the mall, online spaces can be places of great conversations with friends or they can also be a place of unwanted comments or requests, and relationships that aren’t clearly defined.
The unwanted interactions youth face can range from annoying (everyone’s experienced having to close multiple popup windows with ads for pornographic websites), to harmful (a youth’s classmate may be constantly messaging them asking for nude photos), to criminal.
Recent cases of exploitation have involved people using social media sites like Facebook or apps such as Whisper to attract others into relationships that may eventually lead to commercial sexual exploitation. Here’s an example:
Tevon Harris, a 22 year old in Houston, TX, pled guilty to two charges of child sex trafficking. He would meet young girls online, and gain their trust by talking to them about their goals and dreams. He would tell them that he was going to help them become models, and ask to meet up in person. When he picked them up, he took them to hotel rooms, forced them to take drugs, raped them, and took away their phones—cutting off communication with the outside world. He took their photos and posted them online as advertisements for prostitution. Then, he forced them to meet with the people who would buy them online, and kept all of the money that they received.
Stories like this show how online interactions can lead to serious danger. There are millions of others, however, who use the Internet without running into trouble. The internet isn’t a scary place, but there’s no denying that it presents unique opportunities for harm. This guide will walk you through ways that you can help equip and empower youth to stay safe online and how you can identify risky behaviors before they become problematic.
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Before we begin talking about how to promote safer interactions online, the first way you can help protect youth is to determine when and where Internet-enabled devices are used. It can be helpful to make a plan with youth on what types and how much media and what type of devices they use. If possible, we encourage you to agree to follow the standards together.
You can help youth determine a standard of internet use for themselves by walking through the following questions with them:
- Describe when/where throughout the day you typically use a computer or phone to access websites/social media apps (e.g., at home, during school hours, on the way to school, etc.)
- Where are Internet-enabled devices you use (computers, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles, electronic books) located (e.g., home, school, library, etc.)?
- What types of websites/apps are you allowed to/should you access both in and outside of the home?
- What are responsible ways you can use social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.)?
- What restrictions can we agree on for how you access the Internet/apps on your phone? Can a cell phone be used to access the internet at all times? If so what restrictions are on this?
Most youth now have a camera with them 24/7, and it is important to talk to your children about images they should and shouldn’t ask for or share. According to a recently survey, 21% of teen girls and 18% of teen boys have sent/posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2013).
Sending and receiving “sexy selfies” is a part of everyday life for many teens. And it’s likely that sexting is a common practice at your child’s school, but it can have negative consequences when a photo meant for one person is being passed around the whole school. The consequences of sexting can have lasting implications, including bullying, humiliation, and expulsion from school.
Even if a youth is taking and sending explicit material of themselves, they can be charged with the production and distribution of child pornography by law enforcement. In one example, a 17-year-old male who sent a photo of his genitalia to his girlfriend was charged with two felony charges, which could lead not only to incarceration but also to being listed on the state sex offender registry. Although it is unlikely for a teenager to face charges in court for sexting, it is important for youth to be aware of the realities of the possible legal consequences.
Suggest to youth that they ask the following questions before sending or asking someone else for a revealing photo:
- Is this something I would do face-to-face?
- Would I be okay with this photo being posted in my school’s hallway?
- Would I want someone to ask me for the same thing?
APPS AND WEBSITES
WHAT IS IT?
THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR
|Instagram is a photo snapping, editing and posting app that has become very popular with youth. The product allows users to take a photo or short video, apply a “filter” to enhance or modify it, and then instantly share it with other Instagram users as well as people on Facebook, Twitter and other services.||You might want to ask your youth if he or she is familiar with the privacy settings and have a brief talk about the appropriate use of photo sharing. Instagram can also display a map of where your photos were taken, but this too can be toggled off and on and it’s a good idea for kids not to disclose their physical location. While the app can be a fun way to view posts around the world around topics like #fashion or #food, it also easily provides a way to view posts about self harm. For example, “#ana” brings up posts from many youth who are encouraging each other to stay anorexic in order to lose weight.|
|Musical.ly||A very popular app for creating 15 second music videos. People record themselves lip-syncing, dancing, doing comedy, etc… These videos can also be shared on other social media networks. Users are called “musers.” The goal for many “musers” is to have a featured video. Featured videos are chosen by musical.ly and appear on the Featured Feed. These chosen videos garner more likes and fans.||Accounts are public by default. It would be wise to make a child’s Musical.ly account is private and be sure they’re only being followed by people they truly know and trust. A common goal on the app is growing your fan base, which raises safety concerns for youth being followed by strangers. Musical.ly says it restricts users to over 13 and teens, between 13 and 18, must have parental permission. When signing up, musical.ly does not ask users to enter a birthdate or age. Anyone can sign up easily with an email. Presently, accounts cannot be deleted, a feature Musical.ly says is coming soon. In this story, a father shares about how his 7-year-old was targeted by a predator on Musical.ly.|
|Kik||An instant messaging app with over 100 million users that allows users to exchange videos, pics and sketches. Users can also send YouTube videos and create memes and digital gifs.||Youth using the app for sexting and sending nude selfies through the app is common. The term “sext buddy” is being replaced with “Kik buddy.” On other apps such as Vine, it’s common to see comments that say “Kick me at ____.” Kik does not offer any parental controls and there is no way of authenticating users, thus making it easy for sexual predators to use the app to interact with minors.|
|Omegle||Omegle’s tagline is “Talk to strangers!” and is primarily used for video chatting. When you use Omegle, you do not identify yourself through the service. Instead, chat participants are only identified as “You” and “Stranger.” However, you can connect Omegle to your Facebook account to find chat partners with similar interests. When choosing this feature, an Omegle Facebook App will receive your Facebook “likes” and try to match you with a stranger with similar likes.||Although the website claims to moderate the conversations, the video connection with the random stranger is immediate, creating ample opportunity for youth to be exposed to unwanted sexual material.|
|Snapchat||This app allows a user to send photos and videos to anyone on his/her friend list. The sender can determine how long the receiver can view the image and then the image “destructs” after the allotted time.||While it’s typically used by youth to share funny photos with each other, it’s also popularly used for sexting because youth think it is the safer way to share explicit images. However, the receiver can take a screenshot and share the photo with others. Also, a lot of images from Snapchat get posted to revenge porn sites, called “snap porn.” Also be aware that SnapChat’s SnapMap feature reveals a users location when they post. To turn off this feature, select “Ghost Mode” in SnapChat’s settings. SnapChat’s SnapMap settings can be found here.|
|Whisper||Whisper is an anonymous confession app. It allows users to superimpose text over a picture in order to share their thoughts and feelings anonymously. Even though you post anonymously, it displays the area you are posting from, and users can send you a private message. You can also search for users posting within a mile from you.||Due to the anonymity, youth are sharing personal vulnerabilities that someone looking to exploit them could take advantage of. A quick look at the app shows post such as “I’m bullied at school for being fat” or “I’m so lonely.” And while some of the comments seem supportive, it’s impossible for youth to know the true intentions of the person on the other side of the screen. Sexual predators can use the app to locate kids and establish a relationship—one man in Seattle, was charged with raping a 12-year-old girl he met on this app in 2013.|
|Down||This app, which used to be called Bang With Friends, is connected to Facebook. Users can categorize their Facebook friends in one of two ways: they can indicate whether or not a friend is someone they’d like to hang with or someone they are “down” to hook-up with.||Although identifying someone you are willing to hook-up with doesn’t necessarily mean you will actually hook-up with them, it can make youth feel pressured to participate in sexual activity even if they’re not comfortable with it. Also, because of the classification system, it can make youth feel left out or unwanted, which can lead to anxiety and low self-esteem.|
General Tips Regarding Mobile Apps:
Even though mobile apps have the potential to expose youth to unwanted content and and harmful interactions, they also play an important part of the way youth socialize with each other in fun, healthy ways. Dozens of new apps are also introduced daily, and the “popular” app among youth changes frequently. For these reasons, it’s important to set general rules and expectations about how apps are downloaded and used rather than banning individual apps.
- Restrict app downloads, and set an expectation that new apps should only be downloaded once the youth has discussed its pros and cons with you or a trusted adult.
- For Apple devices (iPhones, iPods, IPads): Settings > General > Restrictions > disable “Installing Apps” or scroll down to “Allowed content” > Apps > Choose your filters
- For Android devices: Menu > Content Filtering > Choose your filters
- Become a ‘friend/follower’ of the youth’s social media accounts.
- Have your youth use your app store account or an account linked to your email, so you’ll be notified when an app is downloaded.
- While it’s impossible to know everything youth are sharing online, set hard boundaries on pieces of information that you think should never be shared publicly, such as a personal phone number or home address.
- Remember that apps aren’t exclusively accessible through a mobile phone—many apps can be used on any Internet-enabled device, such as laptops, iPods, tablets, and watches.
Websites to watch out for
The following are websites where sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation related activities have been found to occur. Social networking sites are more frequently being used by traffickers to initiate a relationship with a minor. Traffickers may also post ads on websites for escort ads or the youth may be exploited through involvement in cyber-sex. If you find that a youth is active or has a listed profile/ad on these websites, you have serious cause for concern, and should discuss it with the youth as soon as possible.
WHAT IS IT?
|Ashley Madison||With the tagline “Life is Short. Have an affair.” Ashley Madison claims to be the world’s “leading married dating service for discreet encounters.”|
|Backpage||Similar to Craigslist, Backpage was an online classifieds site. In April 2018, Backpage was seized by the FBI specifically for issues of exploitation. Several investigations for child sex trafficking have identified minors being advertised for sex in the adult “escorts” section.|
|City Vibe||CityVibe is a website for ads for escorts, and “adult dating and massage.”|
|Fitlads||Fitlads is a popular social network for gay males.|
|hi5||hi5 is advertised as a social network for meeting new people.|
|Gaydar||Gaydar is a world-wide, profile-based dating website for gay and bisexual men.|
|Mocospace||Mocospace is a website and app that allows users to pairs up users to chat and play games.|
Pornography is more anonymously accessible than ever before, and the potential for pornographic exposure (both unwanted and sought-out) among youth is far larger than most of us realize. The types of pornography that can be easily accessed has also changed with extreme/deviant forms being much more easily found online.
Recent studies on the effects of viewing pornography suggest that youth who watch porn may develop unrealistic ideas and expectations about sex. Youth themselves are identifying that pornography could be problematic. When a leading research group asked 500 18-year-olds in the UK about online pornography, 72% of them said that they felt like it lead to unrealistic attitudes towards sex, and 77% the young women in the study said they felt like it pressured them to look and act a certain way.
The conversation about pornography needs to start early and needs to be an ongoing process. Don’t expect it to be a one-time conversation. Keep an open dialogue, and be there for them. When they recognize it as a problem or come across disturbing images online, they’ll know that they can talk to you about ways to deal with it.
RED FLAGS FOR ONLINE EXPLOITATION
It can be difficult for children to talk about sexual concerns or sexual exploitation, whether it’s committed by a stranger, someone they know, or a peer. Many tell no one at the time and, even as adults, many victims feel they can’t speak about their abuse.
Signs that a child or young person may be the target of sexual exploitation online include:
- Spending increasing amounts of time on the Internet.
- Becoming increasingly secretive—particularly around their use of technology.
- Shutting the door and hiding what they have on screen when someone enters the room.
- Not being able to talk openly about their activity online.
- Agitated behavior when answering their cell phone and needing to take the call in private.
- Developing a pattern of leaving the home for periods of time with no explanation of where they are going.
- Vague talk of a new friend but offering no further information.
DEVELOP A SAFETY PLAN
Read through the following situations and action steps, and work together to develop a safety plan. Agreeing on specific action steps ahead of time can save youth the difficulty of trying to figure out what to do in the moment.
In addition to reading through the scenarios together, work with youth to make a list of trusted peers and adults in their life that they can talk to in an uncomfortable situation.
You met a really nice girl/guy online, but they live a few hours away. One day they message you and say that they’re coming to your town for the day. They want you to meet them at the mall.
- If the request makes you uncomfortable, don’t respond to the message.
- If the person continues to try to make contact, tell a friend or trusted adult.
- If you feel that the person is truly trustworthy and want to meet them, ask a trusted adult to go with you. You should never meet someone for the first time alone. Never make plans to meet with someone without talking to an adult first.
- As a general rule, remember that you should never disclose personal information, such as your phone number or where you live, to someone you’ve met online.
You texted suggestive pictures of yourself to your boyfriend/girlfriend. He/she shared them with a bunch of friends from school.
- If the picture was shared on a social media website such as Twitter or Facebook, report the image to the company immediately; social media companies have policies to protect children.
- Tell a trusted counselor or teacher at school. It’s better to be embarrassed for a moment than to have the situation get worse. You may want to talk to the counselor about what disciplinary consequences you and the people who have shared the photo will face.
- If you feel comfortable, confront your boyfriend/girlfriend directly. Talk with a friend or trusted adult to figure out what you want to say, and ask them to come with you if you want their support.
- Do not continue to send them photos, even if they threaten to send the photo to others or break up with you if you don’t. Talk to a trusted adult for support, even if it’s hard to tell them that you sent a picture at all.
- As a general rule, never send revealing photos of yourself to another person, whether you know them in person or not—once it’s sent, it’s impossible to control what they do with it and you could end up being charged with the production of child pornography!
Internet filtering software options
- Net Nanny:
Net Nanny shows you what your children do online and lets you identify information that is never to leave the computer, such as your home address or credit card numbers. You can manage the account from any computer with a web connection and a browser.
- AVG Family Safety:
AVG Family Safety software monitors chat rooms and social networking sites, filters websites based on age appropriate content, sends you to text/email reports on web usage, and allows you to set up unique accounts for every child.
WebWatcher collects data about user activity on computers or mobile devices and creates detailed time tracking and activity reports available online.
Online safety guide for teens
- Love146’s Online Safety Guide
This page, written to be a resource for teens, walks through conversational red flags, safety guidelines to follow online, and what to do if you feel uncomfortable.
Tools for addressing pornography
- The Guideline
This 20 page guide from Fight the New Drug is for parents/caregivers who want to address pornography with teenagers. The guide is based on the feedback that Fight the New Drug has received from thousands of teenagers and research on the effects of pornography.