This is a guest blog post by Susan Kennedy, Ed.M., Prevention Program Manager at National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is a partner of Family Promise.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) receives millions of reports of suspected child sexual exploitation online each year. Data from these first-hand accounts drive prevention efforts at NCMEC, ensuring that our educational tools and resources match the latest trends in online child victimization. One growing trend is “self-produced explicit content.” These are explicit images or videos created by the child in the image or video and can include “sexting” or “sending nudes,” a trend most often seen with older teenagers. But we have also seen reports of younger children creating, sending, and/or posting explicit content of themselves online as well. Some of this behavior could be developmentally appropriate behavior. Young children are naturally curious about their bodies. Teenagers are exploring romantic relationships including sexual behaviors and risk-taking. However, the use of technology brings unique risks to this exploration, including that these images may be circulated online. To address this growing issue, it is critical that trusted adults have active and open conversations with children of all ages about the safe use of technology including cameras, social media and live streaming.
To help trusted adults broach these topics with young children to learn about these risks and safer behavior online, NCMEC offers the NetSmartz web series, Into the Cloud. To accompany these animated episodes there are facilitation guides, discussion questions and group activities – all available for free here – in English and Spanish.
With older children, these conversations can be more complicated because adolescents are exploring romantic relationships using technology. Adults should strive to talk to teens about these topics as openly as possible. While young people do seek guidance from trusted adults, even about sex, they may hesitate to do so when it comes to questions or concerns about their online life for fear of judgement or fear that their access to technology will be taken away. But talking to older children about sexting can help them make healthy decisions, while also ensuring they do not find themselves breaking the law, as creation and distribution of explicit images can be a crime. To guide these conversations with young people, NCMEC offers resources, including our “Your Photo Fate” video and discussion guide (available in English and Spanish). Starting the conversations early, in an age-appropriate way, makes the continued conversations more comfortable as children get older. It’s much less awkward than a one-time sex talk or waiting until there’s an incident to deal with!
In addition to prevention education resources, NCMEC can also help with:
- Reporting. All suspected child exploitation online should be reported to NCMEC at www.CyberTipline.org.
- Content Removal. NCMEC offers assistance to young people who want their explicit content taken down.
- Victim & Family Support. NCMEC provides a wide range of support services, including crisis intervention, mental health referrals, and emotional and peer support.
There is no question that we must be concerned about the threats to children online, especially now with children using technology more than ever and increasing access at younger ages to devices such as
laptops, tablets, and cellphones. The good news is that trusted adults can offer a tremendous amount of protection by being willing to get involved in the online lives of children and offer guidance and support as young people navigate their off-line lives.
For more information and resources, visit www.missingkids.org/netsmart.