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To Safeguard Children from Exploitation, Parents Should Reconsider Approach to Online Behaviour

Many younger people are relying more on screens for social interactions.


Raising children in the digital age is becoming particularly complex. Many young people are growingly reliant on screens for social interaction. They experiment with new media sharing platforms such as TikTok, Snapchat, and BeReal, but without necessarily considering long-term consequences. 

This is normal because children's prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, decision-making, and impulse control, is still underdeveloped. Parents who are responsible for anticipating the outcomes of digital interactions are overwhelmed. Many parents may lack the digital literacy to guide their children through today's plethora of social media platforms, messaging apps, and other online platforms. This situation may expose children to online sexual exploitation. 

They collected data from a diverse group of experts in the United States and the United Kingdom for our study. Interviews were conducted with internet safety non-profits, safeguarding teams, cybercrime police officers, digital forensics staff, and intelligence directors. The ability to share explicit content online is a major reason for the rapid escalation of online child sexual exploitation. The research unveiled four distinct stages used by perpetrators.

In Stage 1, perpetrators use various technological tools and networks to initiate contact with potential victims, such as social media, messaging apps, games, and online forums. They frequently create false identities by using fake images to create convincing digital personas through which they approach children, such as posing as a "new kid on the block" looking for new friends.

In Stage 2, perpetrators use tactics such as impersonating a similar-aged child to gain the trust of potential victims. This can occur over a long period of time. In one case we investigated, a 12-year-old boy in Lee County, North Carolina, received 1,200 messages from the same perpetrator over the course of two years. Offenders may send their own explicit images during this stage to reduce a victim's suspicion.

In Stage 3, the perpetrators resort to online extortion. They modify innocent photos or use photographs provided by victims to make them appear sexual or pornographic. Perpetrators then send these images to their victims in order to keep them in a state of humiliation. When perpetrators threaten to share these humiliating images with the victim's friends, teachers, or family unless their victims send more explicit photos or videos, the situation escalates.

At this point, many extortion techniques and direct threats are being used. It's difficult to imagine the psychological strain this can put on children. Before seeking help, a 12-year-old girl uploaded 660 sexually explicit images of herself to a cloud-based storage account controlled by a 25-year-old perpetrator.

In Stage 4, perpetrators begin selling these images on peer-to-peer networks, the dark web, and even child pornographic websites.

Defending against online exploitation

Parents can help prevent exploitation by avoiding common mistakes. By sharing these, parents, policymakers, school boards, and even children will reconsider their approach to online behavior.
1. "That will never happen to us!" Many victims and their families are victims of optimism bias, believing that bad things will never happen to them. Online crimes, on the other hand, can affect anyone. Unfortunately, these occurrences are more common than most people realise. No family is immune to the dangers of the online world.

2. "Everyone's doing it!" It is now common for parents to overshare pictures of their children on social media. Many parents find it difficult to resist the pressure or temptation to post photos of their children on social media. These photographs are frequently edited and distorted to appear pornographic. Everyone in the family must resist the urge to overshare photos on social media.

3. "It doesn't bother my kids!" Many children today have a digital presence that their parents initiated and maintain without their consent. This disregard for children's privacy not only undermines their autonomy, but it can also have long-term consequences for their self-esteem, personal and professional future, and parent-child relationship.

4. "We are unable to keep up with their technology!" When they can't keep up with their children, many parents feel overwhelmed and intimidated. As technology continues to play an important role in children's lives, parents' digital literacy must be improved through online resources and schools. Parents must seek and receive assistance in understanding the technology that their children use.

5. "They're just online chatting with friends!" Parents may be very involved and interested in who their children talk to on the way home from school or at friends' houses, but they may not be as aware of who their children talk to online. Just as they are interested in their child's real-world interactions, the benefits and risks of online behavior must be an important and frequent topic of discussion.

Online child sexual exploitation is a serious and multifaceted problem that requires our undivided attention. We can only hope to prevent children from becoming victims of these crimes if we carefully consider these critical concerns.

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