Internet safety for kids today

THE RISKS OF DIGITAL MEDIA IN THE EVERYDAY-LIFE OF CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS

One in three Internet users today is a minor. Nearly 30 percent of children between six and nine, already 69 percent of 10 to 11 year olds, and 92 percent of 12 to 13 year olds have their own smartphone. From the age 14 and up, 98 to 99 percent own a smartphone.[1]They are part of the “selfie generation”[2], and because of their need to be acknowledged, their curiosity and urge to try and test things out, and because of their communication behaviour, they often expose themselves to risks they do not or cannot recognise as such because of their age. In the course of pervasive self-expression – “digital exhibitionism” –, children and teenagers also take nude photos of themselves and each other. Once such images are sent digitally (so-called sexting), they easily become material for paedo-criminal markets. Children and teenagers also face the risk of being blackmailed with such images. Even media-savvy children and teenagers are at a loss when they are targeted by adult perpetrators acting strategically. These perpetrators can manipulate them skilfully and catch them off-guard. This is why children and teenagers need adults they can turn to.

 

Never before has the social circle been as extensive as it is today in the age of social networks and online gaming. It has never been easier for perpetrators to come into direct and, above all, undisturbed contact with children, for example via online gaming, social networks or messenger services. Profiles on social networks or in messenger groups also provide them with many insights which they use to their advantage. To abuse, perpetrators use all means available. According to the data of the MiKADO study on the sexual online contacts between adults and children, we learn that each year approximately 728,000 adults in Germany have sexual online contacts with children who are strangers to them.[3]The study further mentions that once a sexual online contact between an adult and a child leads to a meeting in real life, this meeting results in physical sexual child abuse in 100 percent of cases.[4]

 

Digital media facilitates the shifting of boundaries. Platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat or Instagram not only invite users to engage in self-presentation, they almost prescribe it. For people who tend to violate boundaries, selfies (self-taken portrait pictures) present an easy opportunity to make hurtful and biting comments.

 

Digital media has an impact on the characteristics of relationships. Unfortunately, it also seems to encourage violence among peers. Sexting – the digital exchange of intimate or sexual content in text, image or video – presents a particularly great risk. All too often it leads to an unwanted further distribution of nude selfies. “Share-violence” is the term we use for this type of sexual violence. In discussions about this form of peer violence both among adolescents and among pedagogically trained professionals, roles and blame are often being reversed. “Well, it’s also (kind of) their own fault for sharing nude selfies” can be heard time and again.

 

It is a fact that in the age of digital media, sexting is a form of sexual behaviour that many people engage in, not only adolescents. While attention must be drawn to the risks, the behaviour itself should not be judged and or rejected as being immoral.

 

KEY TERMS

CYBER GROOMING: manipulation of a girl or a boy via digital media to perform sexual acts, either in front of a webcam or later in an offline meeting.

 

SEXTORTION (sex + extortion): digitally sent intimate images become the perfect means for blackmailing – either to demand money or to extort other sexual acts.

 

SHARE-VIOLENCE: the further distribution of intimate and sexual digital content (text, image, video, depiction of the abuse), unwanted by the victim and/or extorted.

 

LIVESTREAM-ABUSE: perpetrators sign in to a forum and watch/direct abuses being committed with children in a remote location via livestream.

 

 

[1]KIM study 2016 and JIM study 2017, Forschungsverbund Südwest

[2]Dr. Sommer study 2016

[3]Projection based on MiKADO and a 2015 online-study by ARD/ZDF

[4]MiKADO (www.mikado-studie.de)

 

AT WHAT AGE SHOULD CHILDREN BE ALLOWED TO USE THE INTERNET UNSUPERVISED?

Children become interested in digital media at an increasingly young age, simply because they are surrounded by so many people using it. It is important to discover the digital world together with the child, to guide his or her first steps and to carefully impart knowledge about the safe handling of digital media.

THE OLDER THE CHILDREN ARE, THE MORE IMPORTANT IT IS TO SET COMMON RULES:

  • Which websites is a child allowed to visit, and which are forbidden? What apps does my child have?
  • What digital or online games does my child play?
  • How much time is the child allowed to spend in front of the screen?
  • When does the smartphone or tablet need to be turned off? Who is the child making friends with online?

Children of primary-school age should not yet be “surfing the web” on their own. Up to and including sixth grade, it is advisable to set clear times to go online, so that parents can align their schedule accordingly and can be nearby during this timeframe.

 

The better and more intensive the support and mentoring is while children are online, the safer they can navigate the web later on. This means that mothers, fathers, guardians and professionals who work with children have to deal with and educate themselves about the digital world, so that they can provide guidance for children and teenagers and will establish them as someone they can talk to.

 

THE AGE AT WHICH A CHILD IS ALLOWED TO USE THE INTERNET UNSUPERVISED DEPENDS ON THE CHILD’S INDIVIDUAL MATURITY REGARDING THE SAFE USE OF DIGITAL MEDIA.

 

AS USAGE TIME PER DAY, WE SUGGEST A MAXIMUM OF 45 MINUTES FOR CHILDREN OF PRIMARY-SCHOOL AGE, AND A MAXIMUM OF 60 MINUTES FOR CHILDREN BETWEEN THE AGES OF 11 AND 13.

SIGNS OF ABUSE IN GIRLS AND BOYS

Any one of the signs below may have a number of underlying causes, but if you notice 2 or more of these symptoms and if the onset is very sudden we recommend that you seek professional guidance.

 

  • Aversion to or excessive interest in physical contact
  • Rejection of a certain adults and the fear or refusal to be left alone with them
  • Unexplained stomach aches
  • Sleep disorders (night terrors, bed-wetting) or eating disorders (bulimia or anorexia)
  • Problems in school including poor results or indifference
  • Loss of previous interest in extracurricular activities or hobbies
  • Sexually explicit drawings
  • Overly sexual behavior with playmates or toys
  • Compulsive masturbation in very small children
  • Sudden interest in adult genitalia
  • Sudden fear of undressing in public
  • Sudden fear of a specific place

 

Not every girl and boy who experiences sexual abuse also shows behavioural problems. Physical signs that undoubtedly indicate sexual violence are rare. Nor are there any specific changes in behaviour indicating that a child is being sexually abused. However, abuse causes some or all of the emotions below in victims:  

 

  • Affected girls and boys are confused about how two-faced the perpetrator behaves.
  • They are scared and feel ashamed.
  • They feel guilty and responsible.
  • They feel lonely, powerless, and let down by the world around them.
  • They suffer a severe loss of confidence.

 

 

All these confusing and exhausting feelings make it hard for affected girls and boys to communicate.

 

If a child suddenly or gradually behaves differently than usual for inexplicable reasons – for example, withdraws, acts aggressively, no longer enjoys his or her hobbies – then that is a sign that the child is in distress, feels depressed and weighed down by something. A number of reasons could cause this change in behaviour, such as the developmental phase of defiance, puberty, separation, or suffering violence and abuse. To find out what’s going on, adults need to take the time to get a conversation started with the child or teenager.

 

Affected children often drop subtle hints. They suddenly don’t feel like exercising any more, don’t want to play on the smartphone or visit the neighbours.

 

If these needs are ignored, girls and boys often lose the courage to confide in others. But if they are asked more detailed questions, they might be able to open up.

 

Subtle hints and changes in behaviour are something like a symbolic language children and teenagers use with adults. These signs need to be noticed and correctly interpreted if we are to act to protect our children.

HOW TO HELP VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ABUSE

Those affected need adults who believe that sexual abuse actually occurred. When adults show that they are interested, open-minded and ready to talk, children and teenagers find it easier to reveal their burdens and secrets.

 

Those affected need adults who understand.One thing they should understand is that digital communication and relationships quickly lead to disclosing a lot of intimate information which makes the child very vulnerable. It is also important to understand that certain behaviour patterns that are often incomprehensible or even disruptive to adults, can be a child’s strategy to defend himself or herself against abuse. For example, if a child stops washing or showering, they might be hoping that the perpetrator will leave them alone. The child’s family or close social circle might react with displeasure or exasperation to this change. Such a response can even encourage the defensive behaviour—because the child is secretly hoping that a caring adult will become aware and put an end to the abuse. Above all, it is important to understand the major conflict of those affected, especially if the abuser is someone familiar and close to them. They want to end the abuse, but they definitely don’t want to lose the perpetrator. They often are attached and cling to the perpetrator’s “good” side, which is the side they want to keep and not harm.

 

Those affected need adults who can remain calm.Before intervening too quickly, adults should get help themselves. It is not easy to accept that sexual abuse is happening in one’s close circle, or to comprehend the complex dynamics. A consultation in a counselling centre provides the opportunity to sort out all the impressions and feelings, to calm down, and plan steps to stop the abuse.

 

Those affected need adults who do not close their eyes but who look closely and intervene.It is not uncommon for children and teenagers to become victims of sexual assault by other children and teenagers. Adults need to take this behaviour seriously and set clear boundaries for molesting or harassing girls and boys. The children and teenagers who themselves violate boundaries also need help.

 

Those affected need adults who can talk to them about their experiences with digital media and step in, if necessary.More and more frequently, children and teenagers use digital media to sexually harass or expose and embarrass others.

 

Those affected need aftercare. Not all affected children and teenagers need immediate therapeutic support, they might not even need it at all. The impact and aftermath for those affected depend, among other things, on:

  • how long the sexual abuse continued
  • the relationship between the abusive person and the child; how severe the actions were, and how severely they were experienced
  • how gentle to the victim the disclosure was
  • how supportively the victim’s close ones reacted.

 

However, should the feeling of powerlessness from the abuse return later (during puberty, for example), those affected may need therapeutic help.

 

Once the abuse is stopped, in addition to sensitive support and the opportunity to talk about the experience, the affected girls and boys need adults who recognise when it is time to allow everyday life to return. To reduce girls and boys solely to victims weakens and hinders their further development. The goal must be to treat the injury in such a way that it will heal well, and, if possible, only small scars will remain. The abuse is part of someone’s personal life story, but by far not the only part that makes life meaningful.

 

If the abuse leads to a trial in court, special support for the proceedings is desirable, such as socio-pedagogical assistance and support throughout the trial and prosecution.

MORE INFORMATION

 

For a full overview of the risks children face in the digital age download the Innocence in Danger Handbook