Children are increasingly living their lives online, leaving them open to predators who stalk them using cute avatars and luring techniques that can be captivating as well as dangerous.
That’s why, during Stop the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth Awareness Week, March 8 - 14, youth advocates are warning Tri-City parents to be more attuned to their children’s online activities — especially their video games that have a chat component where predators lurk to get the attention of youngsters.
“The truth is, most people don't pay attention to the dangers of sexual exploitation until it happens to them, their family, or the people they care about,” said PLEA Community Services program manager Camila Jimenez, who leads the organization’s Children of the Street program.
As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year, the social worlds of children and youth continue to heavily rely on screen time, opening up hundreds of thousands of children in B.C. — and around the world — to the risk of being targeted by predators online.
Jimenez said youth aged nine to 14 are particularly at risk as their online activity increases.
She wouldn’t specify any Coquitlam demographic as being particularly at risk, but said online exploitation can be done anywhere at anytime.
“Any youth — being a youth in itself is a vulnerability in that sense — you are trying to find yourself, you’re at a point in your life where you want to fit in and you want to have connection, said Jimenez. “We’re vulnerable at that time and that’s what exploiters are looking for.”
In Canada, reports of sexual abuse attempts on children and reports from youth who were sexually exploited have skyrocketed during the pandemic: over April, May and June reports to Cybertip, Canada's tipline for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children, increased by 81%.
While Jimenez wouldn’t point to any particular game that is a problem — in part because they are constantly changing — those with online chat or voice functions require the most vigilance.
“It’s fun to play games, it’s OK, It’s the interactive functions that come with that, any games that come with chat or voice games that are the games parents and caregivers should be aware of,” she said.
Some of the techniques predators use to gain a child’s attention include love bombing or attention bombing, (when loving words, actions, and behaviour are used as a manipulation technique) and capping, which is when an individual tricks kids into committing a sexual act over live stream while recording a video or capturing a screenshot.
PLAY THE GAME, TALK TO YOUR CHILD ABOUT CHAT OPTIONS
To educate themselves and help their child navigate this unwanted attention, Jimenez encourages parents and caregivers to:
• Play the games, with their kids or on their own, to get familiar with game features such as chat options.
• Create age-appropriate safety plans, together with their children, to help identify safe people kids can turn to, how kids can get help, and types of behaviours or questions that kids should learn to recognize as red flags.
• Let kids know they can reach out to you if they feel something isn’t right and that they won’t get into trouble or have their device taken away.
Jimenez said exploitation and trafficking is never a child’s fault.
Exploiters use various tactics to gain a child's trust, including extra attention, gifting, isolating them from their friends/families, and introducing them to new or different experiences (partying, use of drugs/alcohol, etc.).
According to Jimenez, most young people don't have the life skills to understand what's happening when an exploiter begins to develop a relationship with them, which speaks to the importance of education and awareness for children, youth and their parents and caregivers, around sexual exploitation.
DANGEROUSLY CUTE CAMPAIGN LAUNCHED
Dedicated to increasing the awareness, education, and prevention of sexual exploitation of children and youth in B.C., Children of the Street has launched Dangerously Cute, an awareness campaign that focuses on online gaming.
It will target youth and families using bus shelter signs, a social media blitz and post cards sent to 6,000 Tri-City families.
The campaign juxtaposes harmless-looking gaming avatars with the ugly intentions of the predators that can lurk behind them, highlighting for caregivers that online gaming carries risks for children of being exploited, and the importance of teaching kids how to game safely.
Children of the Street, which was started by retired Coquitlam trustee Diane Sowden, offers free information and free services to parents, teachers and caregivers, including:
• Toolkits that provide information and tips on recognizing and talking with children about sexual exploitation;
• In-person/online workshops for school-aged children, parents, teachers and Parent Advisory Councils (PACs) to support recognition, reaction, and response to incidents of sexual exploitation;
• Early intervention when sexual exploitation could be happening, as well as referral to other programs when sexual exploitation is or has happened.
To learn more about the Dangerously Cute campaign for gaming safely online, visit www.gamesafe.ca.