What Afterschool Can Do to Keep Youth Safe Online

As part of our ongoing Child & Club Safety series, we are THRILLED to welcome BGCA’s Sarah Nemecek to the ClubX Blog! She’s am incredible advocate for young people and great partner for staff as we build safe environments.

If you or someone you know is in need of support, you can chat online now with trained staff who can provide confidential crisis support through RAINN or call 1-800-656-HOPE. If you need to be connected with BGCA’s Child & Club Safety team, visit BGCA.net or email ChildSafety@bgca.org.

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Young people are spending more time online than ever before. During the coronavirus pandemic, school, work, and even hanging out with friends moved to online platforms to provide socially-distanced ways to stay in touch with others. While online platforms offer new ways for young people to interact, these platforms also bring risks to child safety. One of those risks is called online sexual exploitation, a form of child abuse. It is vital that Club professionals know the warning signs of the online sexual exploitation of youth and what they can do to help keep young people safe from harm online.

What is the Online Sexual Exploitation of Youth?

The online sexual exploitation of youth is when predators, or those wishing to harm children under age 18, use online tools and services to commit sexual crimes against children. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), a national organization for reporting issues related to child abduction, abuse, and exploitation, the following are example of online sexual exploitation of children: 

  • Suspected online enticement of children for sexual acts. This may include manipulating youth to take sexually explicit images and/or meeting face-to-face with someone for sexual purposes, or to engage in a sexual conversation online. In some cases, an adult may “groom” a youth by pretending to be a peer on social media or other chat forums.
  • Child pornography. This may include possession, distribution, and manufacturing.
  • Child sex trafficking. This may include using youth for sex, sometimes in exchange for promises of food, clothes, money, attention, friendship, love, protection and/or a seemingly safe place to sleep.
  • Child exposure to obscene materials. This may include pornographic materials sent to youth, or using misleading domain names and/or misleading words or images online to trick youth into viewing obscene material online. 

The online exploitation of youth may occur via websites, emails, peer-to-peer conversations, chats/instant messages, cell phones, online gaming, or other technology platforms.

As new technology emerges, new forms of online sexual exploitation also emerge. For example, in 2013, NCMEC also began to receive reports of “sextortion,” or when someone uses forms of coercion, such as blackmail, to sexually victimize youth. Sextortion may include threats to post private or explicit images online unless the youth does what the abuser wants. Studies found that 1 in 20 youth ages 12-17 were targets of sextortion, while 3% also admitted using it against others.

What Are the Warning Signs?

When a youth is a victim of online sexual exploitation, it can be a traumatic event that impacts the young person and their family, sometimes for many years. But there is hope and help. As mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect, Club professionals should become familiar with and watch for the warning signs that a young person may be a victim of online sexual exploitation, to be able get them help.

According to stopitnow.org, the following are warning signs that a young person may display if they are affected by online sexual exploitation: 

  • Isolating Themselves – a young person may start spending more time online, be secretive about their use of technology, hide their devices or screens from others, or become possessive of their technology.
  • Social Changes – a young person may spend more time away from home, be secretive about new friends, or be hesitant to be alone with a particular person.
  • Emotional Changes – a young person may display sudden changes or behavior or mood swings, engage in self-harm, or show signs of anger or irritation.

How Clubs Can Help

Boys & Girls Clubs provide safe, supportive environments for young people, and it is the duty of Club professionals to respond to and report any suspicions that a youth may be experiencing sexual exploitation online. Here are five ways that Club professionals can help protect youth online:

5 Ways to Protect Youth Online

  • Educate Young People about Online Safety. Facilitate age-appropriate education about online safety. Topics might include privacy, digital consent and boundary violations, cyberbullying, and digital citizenship. Some online safety programs include:
  • Create Safe Spaces for Conversation. Provide physically and emotionally safe environments for youth to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts. By keeping lines of communication open and letting youth know that they have supportive people who care about them, the Club can build protective factors to help prevent the risk of children being exploited online. BGCA resources such as the Positive Club Climate Emotional Check-Ins Guide and Group Agreements Guide can help create these safe spaces.
  • Supervise Youth Activity Online and Enable Technology Safety Features. Always monitor youth activity online in the Club. Many online services and platforms include tools, such as pins and passwords, content filters/blockers, parental controls, or other safety features that limit young people’s access to potentially harmful people or content on the Internet. Internet providers may be able to offer content restrictions on the Club’s WiFi. Be sure that Club-owned technology devices are equipped with safety features to protect youth while they engage in online activity at the Club. If youth are using personally-owned or school-issued devices at the Club, supervise youth use of devices and immediately step in if you notice anything concerning.
  • Know the Warning Signs and Report Suspicions. Become familiar with your Club’s policy for reporting suspicions of child abuse and neglect. In addition to reporting suspicions of online sexual exploitation to Child Protective Services and the police, your organization can report concerns via NCMEC’s CyberTipline. You can also contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 24 hours a day at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). NCMEC can provide assistance to victims and families, including referrals to counseling, community resources, legal support, and help removing illegal images from online.

Although young people may be spending more time online, Club professionals can help to minimize risks to online safety. Through supervision, prevention education, open communication with youth, strong technology policies, engagement with parents and caregivers, and partnerships with outside experts, Club professionals can provide the help needed to keep young people safe at the Club, at home, and on the Internet.

If you or someone you know is in need of support, you can chat online now with trained staff who can provide confidential crisis support through RAINN or call 1-800-656-HOPE. To be connected with BGCA’s Child & Club Safety team, visit BGCA.net or email ChildSafety@bgca.org. For other questions, email ClubXBlog@bgca.org to get connected to the right content team at BGCA. 

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