Children’s increasing presence online during the COVID-19 pandemic has youth advocates concerned about the potential for child luring and sexual exploitation.
The issue is being raised after Burnaby RCMP laid charges against a man for befriending a girl on the internet, arranging to meet her and allegedly sexually assaulting her, according to police.
The incident allegedly took in May place as schools were closed and children’s online presence had increased, prompting police along with Children of the Street Society to remind parents to have conversations with their children about the dangers of using social media.
Camilla Jimenez, a spokesperson for the Coquitlam-based organization, told the Tri-City News this week that authorities are increasingly worried about youth safety as they live more of their lives online.
“A lot of the exploiters, we know, are taking advantage as they use apps and platforms to engage with youth,” Jimenez said.
The UNICEF has also put out a call for greater awareness of the potential for exploitation online and the United Nations raised a warning in April that self-isolation has driven more and more children to move online during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to an unprecedented rise in screen time and “raising safety risks for millions of young people.”
The international organization called on governments and agencies to work to protect youth online while closer to home, Surrey RCMP reported recently it has witnessed a 122% increase in child pornography cases over three years.
The Burnaby incident of online luring is a parents’ worst nightmare, but Jimenez said parents can fend off such potential abuse by having conversations with their child when they first get their smart phone, laptop or tablet.
“It’s really important for parents to be making those safety plans with their youth,” Jimenez said. “Who are they going to reach out to? Is it going to be someone they know or is it going to be you?”
In her experience, exploiters have a similar method of contacting youth. They will frequent apps children are interested in, such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, like a post, make a comment or even post content they know a youth will be interested in.
“They are going to engage youth in every way — it starts out public, they can go on private messaging. It really depends on the app. A lot of the time it’s relating to the youth’s ability or interest area.”
These online relationships can last years, as the exploiter convinces the young person that they are a friend.
Parents, however, can nip this in the bud by paying attention how their children are using their device, who they connect with online and help their child come up with a strategy to deal with problematic online behaviour.
“We encourage the conversations to happen when you first hand over the device, you need to treat the device the same way as if they were on their own outside in the way they deal with strangers.”
For more information on virtual workshops on how to prevent online exploitation and tools for parents, visit Children of the Street Society at Plea.ca.