Police are warning parents to be vigilant about their kids’ internet activity after four young New Brunswick children voluntarily shared nude images of themselves online.
The RCMP’s Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit identified four children aged eight to 12 in the province in recent months who shared nude pictures or videos of themselves and made them available to the public on various free websites. The kids hadn’t been pressured or asked to post the images, but rather simply shared them on their own volition.
“It is unfortunately becoming more common for young people, even children, to share exploitative photos and videos of themselves online,” said Sgt. Chantal Farrah of the New Brunswick RCMP.
While the four New Brunswick kids have been confirmed safe, experts say that instances like these likely happen far more often than many people might realize.
“We are seeing this shift of middle school kids and more issues involving sexting,” Jesse Miller, founder of Mediated Reality, a social-media education company in Vancouver, told Yahoo Canada. “It’s not necessarily predation, where kids are getting messages from creepy people online saying ‘send me some nudes.’ It’s really more this idea of where our culture has shifted with the internet and some things kids are exposed to.”
“I firmly believe, as we head toward 2020, that we’ve really failed a different generation of social media users by only focusing on ‘stranger danger ‘and not necessarily focusing on what the Internet was going to do to the perceptions of how we should participate online, especially for younger kids.”
Self-exploitation is another term for sexting, according to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, which refers to youth creating, sending, or sharing sexual images or videos with peers not just via cellphones but also online through electronic devices.
It’s not clear just how many younger kids might be sexting, outside of the stories that make headlines.
MediaSmarts, Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy, has reported that among grade 8 students who own a cellphone, four per cent have sent a sext of themselves to someone else; statistics don’t exist for younger kids.
Regardless of the numbers, experts say that an abstinence approach to sexting isn’t going to work. What’s most effective is progressive education and open discussion with kids of any age.
“For a kid who follows a Kardashian, they’re going to understand that what you put on the internet gets you attention,” Miller said. “A family has to take into account how kids are targeted by the media and with commercials and also what they’re accessing on things like YouTube. Kids are conditioned to take selfies because they watch people take selfies every day, whether in the family home or with their friends.
“Parents have to drop some of that fear of not being prepared for a conversation yet,” he continued. “You need to be prepared to have any conversation at any time, because if you don’t talk to your kids, your kids are going to talk to Google.”
Empowerment and education should also happen in schools, Miller continued. He said he’s concerned about the effects of the Government of Ontario scaling back its sexual-health education on kids’ understanding of sexting and safe internet use. Besides excluding diverse families and gender identity from the curriculum, the province’s curriculum also eliminates sexual-health education related to technology, he said. Miller credits the RCMP for helping shift the direction of public discussion from fearmongering to knowledge.
“Kids need to know how to navigate that space, as opposed to ‘I’ll abstain, I’ll never go online.’ That’s just not a reality in our connected world.”
Saleema Noon, a sexual-health educator in B.C. and author of Talk Sex Today: What Kids Need to Know and How Adults Can Teach Them, suggests parents talk to their children in a meaningful but not preachy way. “The most productive conversations we can have with our kids about sexting, or anything, really, are ones that offer insight and ask questions free of judgment,” Noon explained.
In her book, Noon urges parents to be proactive: “Don’t wait until an incident has occurred to talk about sexting. Preload your child with information and discussions before high school so that their decisions online are well-informed,” she writes. “If sexting is already an issue for your child, listen without judgment before jumping into problem-solving mode.”
She encourages parents and their kids brainstorm about healthy forms of sexual expression and exploration. Talk about activities that are age-appropriate, consistent with your values, and in your comfort zone.
Kids need to also understand the permanence of the Internet and how it’s never okay for someone to pressure, threaten, or coerce another person to send a sext, even if they’re in a relationship.
Operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, Protect Kids Online has other advice for parents to prevent their kids from self-exploitation:
Discuss the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships with your teen.
Explain the importance of establishing and respecting personal boundaries when using technology.
Discuss the types of problems that may arise from sharing private and intimate information electronically, including pictures and videos.
Teach your adolescent that it is illegal to distribute an intimate image of someone without their consent.