Module 6: What Can Safe Adults Do?
It can be really overwhelming to think about children and youth being exposed to sexual exploiters while spending time online. For the safe adults in the lives of young people, it’s important to know for yourself the safety issues that can arise. This section offers some helpful ways you can communicate with your young person about the dangers that they could face.
For the purposes of this section and the rest of this resource, the term “safe adult” is used to describe parents, guardians, caregivers, educators, community members and/or anyone else that is identified as a safe person. This term is used because everyone’s home life looks different, and not all parents are safe adults for youth.
It’s challenging to know what young people are up to all the time when they’re online. Ask questions about how they spend their time and familiarize yourself with the sites, games, and apps young people are using. With technology ever changing, it can be a full time job to keep up. Common Sense Media is a great tool for understanding specific social media platforms, apps, games, etc young people use. This site gives an overview of what a specific app/game is, how it’s used, and an honest review of the level of safety. You’re not expected to know it all. If possible, it’s worth spending a bit of time searching through to see what you can learn. It’s not just about finding out about the level of vulnerability involved. It also helps safe adults understand how to use different sites, apps, and games, and why young people like using them.
However, even if you are in the know about what a young person is doing online, It’s important to avoid the “not my kid” mentality. Nobody wants to think a young person they know will be vulnerable, but the reality is that it can happen to anyone in any community.
Talking to young people
Conversations surrounding online sexual exploitation can be challenging all around, so it’s important to create a safe space to have difficult conversations. Here are some things to keep in mind and practice:
- Think about when you have these kinds of talks. Make sure there is time for it. Don’t rush it.
- Frame the conversation as if online sexual exploitation is something that could happen, not something that will happen. While this can be a scary topic to approach, how you talk about it doesn’t have to be.
- This is a conversation topic that needs to be ongoing, so have it often. The more we open the conversation and normalize it, the more youth understand we are safe people who they can trust. This can act as a protective factor and reduce vulnerabilities. Further, youth will know that if something happens the reaction to disclosure will be supportive.
- Start the conversation young and be age appropriate.
- Start having conversations about healthy relationships, body safety, boundaries, and safe people. This can help to keep children safe both on and offline.
- Try to avoid fear based language by focusing on how to be safe online rather than the dangers. As part of an overall safety talk, you can set guidelines and expectations surrounding using the internet. Write them down so everyone is on the same page.
- Introduce the topic of personal information and that we shouldn’t post personal information online. Phone numbers, addresses, school, age, are things that should not go on the internet.
- Talk about privacy settings online and not accepting requests from people they don’t know offline.
- Ask questions about the games young people are playing and apps they’re using. Ask them to show you how to use it. Listen if they talk about what they’re doing online. A young person could casually talk about someone they’re playing a game with that you’ve never heard of or met before.
Talking to young people who are 12+ years:
- Open up the conversation about what they already know. Have they been taught anything about staying safe online? Do they know their vulnerabilities? Is there anything going on with friends or at school that they’re concerned about?
- Talk about social media, online gaming, and apps. Talk about the positives that come with it such as connecting with friends, engaging in hobbies, learning new things. It’s important for youth to have connections. However, make safety a part of the conversation. It could be helpful to ask how they decide on who they accept as a friend.
- Does it have to be someone they know personally offline?
- Would they accept someone they’ve never met before, even if it’s a friend of a friend?
- If they don’t know this person, how do they ensure this person is who they say they are?
Just telling young people to be safe online won’t work to keep them safe. As they get older and explore natural curiosity surrounding relationships, sex, and chance-taking behaviour, make sure young people know that there are dangerous people online and that these people aren’t always who they say they are.
Show them what online grooming can look like (Module 2) and have them look critically at their relationships; are the relationships raising any red flags. Ensure that youth know that anything they share online can be distributed and that it’s almost impossible to get back.
How could adults initiate these conversations?
While online safety isn’t a conversation that needs to happen everyday, it does need to happen regularly. Ensure your everyday conversations with young people don’t contain victim blaming language (e.g “why did you send that picture?”, “You shouldn’t have put yourself in that situation?”). Being sexually exploited online is something that is largely internalized for those who experience it. Keep the blame on the exploiter in all situations. If a young person hears you place blame on the survivor in a different sort of situation or crime, they may not believe that you won’t blame/judge them if they come to you with a disclosure of online sexual exploitation.
Some children and young people may have a really good grasp of online safety. In fact, they may come to the adults in their life and ask not to have their picture shared on social media. If a young person requests that you don’t post a photo with them in it (school picture, family photos, vacation pictures), it’s important to respect their decision as they have autonomy over their body, choices, public persona, and online presence.
Likewise, if you’re an adult who does not want pictures of your children and teens posted online, it’s okay to tell family and friends to not post them. Having a conversation about safety online does not just have to be with children and youth. Adults can also learn a lot if they are willing to listen.
If adults are going to tell young people to be careful about what they post online, they then have to follow suit. It’s unrealistic for adults to think that it’s okay for them to post pictures and hashtag photos of children and young people, but not for youth to do the same.
It’s becoming more popular that online exploiters will look for certain hashtags when on social media platforms that can lead them to public photos of children and young people. Hashtags like #bathtime, #childbath, #bathchild, #cleanbabies, #pottytraining, etc, can be used by exploiters to gain access to millions of free, public videos and images. Please establish boundaries with yourself and others about what is posted about the children and young people you know.
As discussed in Module 4, being a support for the young person is a great place to start. However, what if a young person hasn’t disclosed? When talking to young people, always deliver a clear message that they are not responsible if they were to be contacted by an online exploiter. Have conversations that place blame squarely on exploiters. Talking to young people about the vulnerabilities is a good precaution. Normalizing the message that the youth is not to blame can take away some of the power the exploiter has created.
Learning the skills of how to stay safe online if youth are approached or feel they’re in a dangerous situation can help a young person feel comfortable coming forward.
Create a safety plan by asking questions like:
- Who would you go to if you felt like you weren’t safe online? List three or four adults that you’re comfortable talking to
- What will you do if something you sent privately is shared without your consent?
How to help a young person/how to regain control?
Once the situation is out in the open, the young person is going to need room to explore what happened to them. There may be feelings of shame and self-blame, so allow them to work through that. Have them talk with a professional, someone who is not attached to the situation who can listen unbiasedly. It’s expected that safe adults in the youth’s life will have a lot of feelings surrounding this as well. It is important that these safe adults work through what they are going through. In order for them to be a support for their loved one, they need to process what has happened too. The feelings surrounding this type of disclosure for both young people and their loved ones are complex. Allow space for what comes up and try to work through it as best as possible while keeping focus on the young person
For safe adults outside the household
For any number of reasons, it’s not always realistic for an adult in the home to have these conversations with a child and/or young person. Not all homes are safe places. If you are an adult in that young person’s life, relay messages of online safety to them because they may not get it anywhere else.
If you’re a teacher, you can introduce online safety as a part of a distance learning plan. With many classes being online during/after the pandemic, starting a class with an introduction about online safety is a natural way to bring it up. Incorporate it into the curriculum if it isn’t already. The advancement of technology isn’t going anywhere so it’s important to get the message out.
It is important to note that if a disclosure is made or if it is suspected there are signs of abuse, the teacher is required by law to report to the police or the Children, Seniors and Social Development (CSSD).
Even if a young person comes from a home where online safety is talked about often, it’s okay for them to hear it from multiple sources!
- Using the questions in the “Safety Plan” section, create your own safety plan.
- Discuss what boundaries are and ask youth to list some of theirs.
- Design an information poster about internet safety. What expectations of internet use and guidelines can be established and would be beneficial to everyone in the home?