A lot of important research insights and guidance on the forms and impact of CSE online have been published by researchers on both sides of the Atlantic recently. Here are some key findings pulled together in one place with links to academic sources and resources for better prevention education….
“Stranger danger” is just as problematic and misleading a term now as sociologists found it to be more than 50 years ago. One sociologist I know thought his field had put it to rest not long after that, but a new thing called “social media,” combined with news media folk who had no idea what “social networking” was, popular TV shows like “To Catch a Predator” and the looming mid-term election of 2006, created a perfect storm that brought the myth roaring back into the public consciousness. Now we have fresh research that not only confirms how off base the term is for child sexual exploitation – online as well as offline, now – but also provides much greater clarity on the problem and how it impacts young people.
The Crimes Against Children Research Center reports that 16% of young Americans have experienced at least one type of sexual abuse online before they turn 18. Types include pressure to share nude images and non-consensual sharing of nude or sexually explicit images. Among youth in that 16%, more than two-thirds (69%) of the offenders were known to the victim, not strangers, and 88% were under 18. “Peers made up a majority of offenders, and their impact [on victims] was just as great as adult offenders,” the CCRC reported last month.
More on impact in a minute, but a few more data points on the forms of abuse and their prevalence: 13-17 year-olds are the most vulnerable age group, with girls the more frequent victims across the board (73%), “perpetrators predominantly dating partners, acquaintances and friends,” with the most frequent type of victimization being sexual solicitation: unwanted sexual questions (18.8%), talk (16.9%), and requests (14.3%). Other prevalences among the 18 types and categories described by the CCRC here include nonconsensual sharing of images, whether or not obtained consensually (7.2%); online grooming by adults (5.4%); sextortion (3.5%); and 3.1% for “revenge pornography,” or non-consensual sharing of “sexts” with the intent to embarrass or humiliate the victim (doesn’t include showing off).
What impacts the most…
The CCRC’s most recent study on this looked at what abuse situations have the greatest emotional impact on victims. The authors found that the involvement of (sexual) images in particular causes a lot of distress, especially “non-consensual sharing, non-consensual taking [sexual images taken when the victim was unconscious, intoxicated, distracted, or otherwise unable to consent, including manufactured ones called “deepfakes”] and threatened sharing/sextortion.” The negative impact on victims is just as great when the abuse comes from peers as from adult offenders, and “known perpetrators, including intimate partners … made up the largest proportion of offenders, and their impact was just as great as … anonymous offenders,” the researchers report.
They looked at the degree of impact from different types of victimization. For one, “the results did not show that more explicit sexual images were associated with more negative impact. This may be because the loss of control over the image or the sense of betrayal might have been more salient” than what was depicted in the image” (emphasis mine).
If nothing else, I hope you read this next set of bullet points – offering some explanations for high levels of distress from victimization by peers – because, in prevention education, kids inevitably ask why adults are concerned. These insights – directly from the authors or inferred by me – may help with that conversation:
- Reputation: the harm that abuse from known peers can do to a young person’s social status and reputation among other peers, i.e., the potential for social exclusion
- Familiarity: The more that is known about a person, the more exposure they have to exploitation.
- Frequency and continuity: Ongoing regular and face-to-face contact could mean ongoing abuse
- Personal vulnerability: The more intimate the relationship was before victimization (such as nonconsensual sharing), the greater the betrayal.
- Social vulnerability: Greater individual vulnerability can spell greater social vulnerability (and possible social exclusion).
- History of vulnerability: The more vulnerable the young person is otherwise (e.g., a history of offline abuse as a child), the greater the negative impact of the online abuse.
- Trauma from betrayal: the trauma that can result from a betrayal of trust by a former intimate partner (more in this analysis).
What can be done?
The CCRC researchers helped the World Health Organization with just that question last year. Their report – “What works to prevent online violence against children?” – makes four recommendations for effective risk prevention education, ideally in schools but engaging parents. The WHO calls for…
- “Less emphasis on stranger danger [for the reasons detailed above]
- “More emphasis on acquaintance and peer perpetrators, who are responsible for a majority of offenses
- “More attention to healthy relationship skills, since romance and intimacy-seeking are major sources of vulnerability to online violence
- “The need for more violence prevention programs that integrate content about online dangers with offline violence prevention, given the overlap of these problems and their common approaches to prevention” (emphasis mine).
Ten years ago, the CCRC published a milestone study that focused on what good online risk prevention education looked like back then. The researchers looked at the top Internet safety education programs in the US at the time and found that all of them “fail[ed] to incorporate critical elements of effective prevention education, including: 1) research-based messages; 2) skill-based learning objectives; 3) opportunities for youth to practice new skills; and 4) sufficient time for learning.” (based on their findings, I wrote “Challenging Internet safety as a subject to be taught“). Two years ago they called for aligning online risk prevention education with established, evidence-based offline risk prevention education, as the WHO recommended late last year (bullet point No. 4).
These are strong, evidence-based arguments for helping children notice and respect their feelings, recognize manipulative behavior and sexual harassment online and offline, set boundaries and develop refusal skills both online and offline. We know a lot now. It’s time for societies to move out of the wasteland of alarmist campaigns to – as the CCRC authors put it – “education and programs based on the reality” of young people’s experiences online.
- Internet-related abuse is only one form of child victimization that the University of New Hampshire-based Crimes Against Children Research Center has researched over the years (here‘s the CCRC’s web page for this category; you’ll see all the others in the left-hand margin). The research linked to on the Center’s Statistics page summarizes and links to all types.
- In “We’re still way too afraid of ‘stranger danger’,” Salon.com senior writer Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote, “Rather than instilling fear in ourselves and our children, we need to consider Mr. Rogers’ advice to ‘look for the helpers’.” Then she cites the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Callahan Walsh as saying we need to change the script. Most adults whom kids don’t know would actually help a child in a bad situation, and maybe we don’t want our kids to rule out the 99+% of us who could help them in a pinch. Walsh told Williams, “We know at the National Center, that the vast majority of people who are going to abduct a child is somebody that that child already knows. If that’s the case, and they’re at a gas station or a convenience store and they’re looking for help, it’s likely a stranger that’s going to come to that child to aid in that situation.”
- “Someone known and trusted by the child or child’s family members perpetrates 91% of child sexual abuse,” reports the US Centers for Disease Control.
- A good example of holistic, evidence-based risk prevention education is the “Second Step” program by Seattle-based nonprofit Committee for Children. “Second Step” is for teaching not only children, but also school staff and adult caregivers, knowledge and skills for protecting kids from unsafe and abusive situations – including recognizing and reporting them. See also their site “Early, Open, Often” for open lines of adult-child communication.