Module 5: How it Impacts Youth
This section will look at how being sexually exploited online impacts children and youth, and the shame and guilt, mental health issues, and common behaviours that are associated. This is not a complete list of the feelings and thoughts of young people. If you’ve been exploited and you don’t relate to any of this, that’s OK. Whatever your experience is/was and whatever you emotions and feelings you have/had are valid.
Trauma and shame
Young people who have experienced online sexual exploitation have gone through a traumatizing event. Because of the challenges of removing images and videos from the internet, the experience can be retraumatizing. Memories of the exploitative relationship, the feelings, and the circumstances can be triggering and cause a lot of emotional and mental anguish/confusion.
Additionally, there can be a lot of shame associated with what has happened. Often times, online exploiters will threaten to share the images and videos with the young person’s friends and family, or post them somewhere on the internet. An exploiter may further coerce the youth into sending more images by making the youth feel ashamed of what happened. The circulation of the photos and videos can further the feelings of shame because the young person doesn’t know who has seen their images or how many times the material has been shared.
Shame can also come from believing and trusting the online groomer, and/or from concerns about how the sexual abuse materials will be perceived by viewers. This is particularly true for young people whose images/videos depict them smiling or having a (seemingly) positive experience. Many young people find it distressing because a viewer could assume the young person enjoyed the abuse and exploitation.
Many young people who have been sexually exploited online experience self-blame. They may believe that they are (at least) partly to blame for what happened to them. While an exploiter may try to place the responsibility of what happened on a young person, the fact of the matter is that the young person may not have been aware of the dangers and was groomed into believing they were talking to someone who cared about them.
Many young people who have experienced online sexual exploitation have thoughts of not being believed or taken seriously if they come forward. Sometimes this is because an exploiter has made the young person believe they are at fault. Much like an exploiter is able to build a trusting relationship with a young person, they can also manipulate them into thinking that no one will believe them, or even that the young person will get in trouble.
Oftentimes if a young person meets up with an exploiter willingly, this can elicit feelings of self-blame because they think “they put themself in that situation”. But that’s not true. The responsibility needs to lay squarely on the shoulders of the exploiter. They are the ones that are pulling the strings and controlling the situation.
Once images and videos have been distributed, it is highly unlikely that they will ever be fully eradicated from the internet. They can be shared and viewed over and over. While the initial act of the exploitation may be over, the fear of others coming across and actively viewing the abuse is ever present. There can be a constant fear of who has seen the material and what have they done with it. There is a very real concern that accompanies the exploitation.
There is no time limit on how long the sexual abuse material can be displayed and it’s nearly impossible to track. However, as is evolving and advances are being made to track and identify child sexual abuse material that is distributed online. Project Arachnid is a tool created by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection that uses advanced technology to find and eliminate abuse material online. Even if an image has been altered, it can still search and help take them down. For more information, please visit their website at https://projectarachnid.ca/en/
Many young people who have experienced online sexual exploitation are concerned not only about who has viewed the content, but the motives behind it. If someone they know has seen the child sexual abuse material, what was the purpose of them seeing it? If strangers saw it, what was the purpose of them seeing it? As we discussed in Module 2, one of the parts of grooming is to de-sexualize the youth.
Anxiety is also prevalent in these situations. The reasons for this are many, such as not disclosing what happened for fear of being judged, not being believed or taken seriously, and/or if youth speak up, the exploiter will follow through on a threat of sharing the child sexual abuse material and send it to friends and family. Naturally depression and anxiety can come from a number of places, particular at times of disclosure when the exploitation has come out in the open.
Trust issues and apathy
The relationship of online groomers and exploiters is meant to mimic one of trust. After this betrayal has come to light, the young person is faced with trying to piece together how it all happened. Naturally, after something like this occurs, it can be really challenging to trust others and form relationships.
Even if a disclosure has not been made, feelings of embarrassment, distress, irritability, and constant thinking about the incident(s) are also common for youth who experienced sexual abuse online. These thoughts and feelings can lead to a general disinterest in activities that they once enjoyed, or distancing themselves from friends and family. These emotions and thoughts can come up for young people whether a disclosure has been made or not around what happened to them.
- Ask youth to look up and write a little bit about different helpful websites such as Project Arachnid, CyberTip.ca, C.A.S.E.Y., etc.
- What did they like about the site?
- What didn’t they like?
- Did they feel the site was reflective of youth culture?
- Was there anything missing?
- What would they add to make it more accessible/relatable?
- What are some other helpful resources can you recommend?