What is online harm?
Simply put, it is any behaviour online that causes harm. This could be physical, emotional or sexual.
Online sexual harm includes:
- Sexual abuse and exploitation
- Grooming: Someone befriends a child and builds trust so they can sexually influence them
- Sending or receiving sexual photos or messages
- Sextortion: Someone threatens to publish sexual images or information about another unless they do what they say
- Encouraging a child access adult pornography websites.
How is it different from exploitation offline?
We know that sexual abuse is harmful regardless of where it takes place. Despite the similarities between online and offline sexual abuse, there are some differences.
Online interaction can give the offender greater access to the child. Family members can be in the background, downstairs or in other rooms and not know that abuse is occurring. This may be due to some parents not realising what their child is doing online or because they are unaware of the consequences.
An element to online sexual abuse is that it is often recorded and shared. This adds to harm of the child because they may feel embarrassed or ashamed, blaming themselves for the abuse. The child may become anxious and worried the offender will share pictures or videos with others. Survivors of online sexual abuse are often fearful that images of them will ‘resurface’. This fear can stay with them into adulthood.
How do offenders target young people online?
Offenders are skilled and motivated to target children through the internet. They can be of any gender, age or sexual orientation and gain access to a child by manipulating or grooming them.
Grooming is when an offender starts interacting online with a child by taking an interest in them, forming friendships, and finding out about their interests, home, family and friendship groups. During this process, the offender will be testing out a child’s response. This may start as subtle and then may move into more sexual or coercive conversations. However, it can also be more direct with the offender moving onto another child if they are not getting the response they want.
As in the offline world, offenders will want to be where children are. Not all offenders pretend to be someone else or younger. They may engage children via social media, gaming and other apps. Offenders will target boys and girls from across all age ranges regardless of the child’s backgrounds.
What can I do if I discover my child has been harmed?
Try to stay calm. Your child may feel incredibly vulnerable, and they need to know you are on their side. Try the CARES approach if you have concerns about the content your child is sharing, viewing or uploading:
C – Calm, non-judgemental listening. Fake it if you have to! Make it clear you do not blame them.
A – Ask open questions and assess – give time and avoid asking ‘why?’
R – Reassure and give information and support. Reassurance does not mean saying it will all be okay. Reflect back feelings and acknowledge how hard this must be. This is a moment in time and recovery is possible.
E – Enter their model of reality; see how it feels for them. There is likely to be conflict and doubt. Do not worry if they would rather talk to someone else.
S – Seek support and self-care. Do not blame yourself. Contact relevant professionals for advice.
Remember: how you react influences your child. Keeping calm will help them do the same.