Module 4: Who is Vulnerable?
The answer to “who is vulnerable?” is anyone. If the exploiter is unknown to the youth, they likely don’t know the youth’s family or living situation, social position, or if they have a lot of friends. The exploiter will work to find out that information. It’s really important to remember that if you are contacted by an online groomer, it’s not your fault and you are not alone. The exploiter has found someone they think they can manipulate, and it can happen to anyone. If you or someone you know has interacted with an online exploiter it’s not an indicator of anything wrong or lacking in you. Online exploiters will cast a wide net, contacting many youth.
Does gender affect vulnerability?
This information is applicable to people of any gender. We often assume this is predominantly a women’s/girls’ issue and it’s not. There are a number of young men and boys, non-binary, and gender diverse people who are groomed online. This issue is not gender specific.
Finding out that the person you’ve been talking to, and trusted, isn’t who you thought they were, can be really painful. It can be easy to internalize those emotions and take on the responsibility of the exploiter’s actions. You are NOT at fault, naive, or lack good judgement. You’re someone who has been deceived, by an exploiter who has an understanding of the grooming process. For more information about how online sexual exploitation impacts youth, check out module 5.
Think about how it started: Were they nice to you? Did they seem trustworthy? Could you confide in them? Were they there for you? Did they help you in a time of need? If you think hard about the situation, did they fill some kind of need for you? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, who could blame you? Who doesn’t want someone in their life like that? It’s once the betrayal happens that we often look back on and wonder why we didn’t see it coming. You weren’t meant to see it coming.
What are some vulnerabilities?
While there are some vulnerabilities that contribute to online grooming, the biggest is the presence of an exploiter. For youth, age and curiosity is a natural vulnerability. Young people have a desire to expand their social networks, make new friends, and learn about sex. This is all part of development. It’s when a groomer exploits these curiosities that it can become dangerous.
The following list shows some demographics that are systematically more vulnerable. However, this is NOT to suggest that these demographics will be exploited.
- Young white/Indigenous female (ages 13 to 17)
- Have lower self-esteem
- Live with mental health issues
- Feel socially isolated/lonely
- Lack peer support
- Willingness to engage in chance-taking behaviour (below are examples of what that could look like)
- Lack of education/knowledge surrounding online grooming and general safety measures of the internet.
- Talking to strangers online (becoming more normalized)
- Giving out personal information (name of school, city where you live)
- Sending out contact information
- Sending explicit content to others/posting online
- Posting personal information on social media
- Come from a single-adult home
- Family challenges (low family engagement, frequent arguing/not getting along)
- An adult who uses substances or is addicted/dependent on substances.
- Adults who do not monitor/understand online use and activity.
- Reduced adult oversight
Sharing images/videos without consent
You could be at risk of online sexual exploitation if you share sexual images or videos with someone else. There is always a chance that the person you send them to could distribute or show others. Any time sexually explicit images, videos, or content depicting a child or youth is being circulated, the youth is retraumatized. Once this content is online, it is almost impossible to get back because it can be shared hundreds of times through many different avenues. This includes strangers who are “friends” that you send images to, someone who you know from school, or a partner(s) who shares an intimate image or video that was meant just for them.
If you or someone you know is sharing and circulating a private picture or video they received from someone, they may be looking at child pornography charges (language used by the law). In the case of two teenagers from the West coast of Newfoundland, a 16 year old teen was charged with 18 months of probation and community service for distributing explicit photos of a 15 year old female friend without her consent.
Erasing the stigma
While anyone can be vulnerable to online sexual exploitation, it’s important for young people to hear the message from safe adults that it is not their fault. This message begins with addressing and erasing the stigma attached to online sexual exploitation. In order to erase the stigma that is attached, there needs to be proper education. Understanding that it is not the young person’s fault is a good place to start.
Whether it was an online groomer who took the time to build a relationship with a youth, or a young person whose personal picture was distributed after being sent to an intimate partner, anyone can be sexually exploited. Taking chances when you think you’re in a trusting relationship is common. Few people think that when they release personal information about themselves that the person on the other side of the screen will harm them. A person who has been exploited doesn’t intentionally put themselves in that situation.
Where to get help
The website CyberTip.ca is used to give safety information, articles, and resources about online sexual exploitation. It is also used to report if you or someone you know is being sexually exploited online. In 2018-2019 there were just under 1,500,000 reports to CyberTip.ca. That number is enormous and proof you are not alone. You are not the only person this has happened to.
Sam is a 15 year old high school student who lives with her mom. Her mother is a nurse and works a combination of night, day, and weekend shifts. Sam has a small close group of friends, but doesn’t socialize much outside of her circle. Recently, a few of Sam’s friends have started dating, leaving less time for her group to hang out. Because Sam’s mom works a lot, Sam has been spending more time on her own.
One afternoon while on Instagram, Sam gets a message from Peter, someone she’s never met. She looks at Peter’s profile. He’s 21 years old, good looking, and attends the local university. Peter and Sam message back and forth casually for about a week, before Peter asks Sam for her phone number so they can text.
Up until now, Sam has justified talking with Peter since it’s only casually on Instagram, but she feels a bit weird giving him her number since there’s such a large age difference. Sam makes a comment to Peter reminding him of her age. Peter says initially, he didn’t notice the age on her Instagram, but when he found out, he didn’t think it was a big deal. Peter acknowledges the age gap and understands how it may seem weird but tells Sam she isn’t like other girls in that she’s easy to talk to, smart and beautiful. Peter tells Sam that it’s not that big of deal and Sam finally agrees and gives Peter her number. Immediately, they start texting.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, Peter and Sam are texting several hours a day. Sam opens up that she’s been feeling a little lonely lately since all her friends are coupled up and always with their partners. Peter asks about Sam’s mom and Sam tells him that she’s gone a lot because she is a nurse and works all the time. Peter tells Sam that he will always be there for her and she can count on him. Sam really feels like Peter understands and cares about her. Peter is attentive, sweet, kind, and always knows how to cheer her up.
One night after talking for a couple hours, Peter mentions that there is a girl on campus that keeps trying to hang out and go for drinks with him. Sam starts to feel a little jealous and insecure when she hears this because she started to have feelings for Peter. Peter tells Sam that he is considering it because he “hasn’t gotten any in awhile”. Peter asks Sam when the last time she got with someone and Sam tells Peter she’s never had sex. Peter tells Sam that he’s surprised since she’s so sexy and that he’d love to see a pic of her in her bra and underwear. Sam gets nervous and says no. Peter replies that “it’s no different than taking a picture in your bathing suit”. After some thought, Sam agrees and sends a picture to Peter.
Over the next few weeks, things start to escalate quickly. Anytime Peter texts Sam, it gets sexual really quickly despite Sam trying to change the subject. Sam wonders what happened to this awesome guy who loved talking to her about everyday things? Peter asks for more photos similar to the ones already sent. Sam sends them. Peter then starts asking Sam for nude photos. At this request, Sam says “no way!” and tries to shut the conversation down. Peter’s tone changes. He tells Sam that if she doesn’t send more pictures, he’s going to message the one he has to her friends on Instagram.
Sam feels trapped, ashamed, and alone. How did this happen? What happened to Peter? Who is Peter? What does she do?
- What other vulnerabilities (not listed) could increase the risk of online grooming?
- Using the case study and module, what can Sam do in this situation? What do you think will happen after she tells a trusted adult? (For this question, download the flowchart activity below and then complete the flowchart on draw.io. You may add your own answers to the flowchart).