Due to its sensational nature, the spectre of unscrupulous adults preying upon and sexually exploiting youth online gets a lot of media attention. Although this does happen, sensational headlines do not help us understand the nature and true extent of the problem or how to deal with it effectively.
The Internet offers young people important opportunities to socialize with their friends and families as well as to find people who share common interests and communities that can provide emotional support. It is also inevitable that at an age where young people are starting to explore their sexuality offline, they will do so online in these interactive environments as well.
As adults, we want to foster resilience in young people, starting when they’re young. This can be done by teaching them how to handle harassing messages or requests that make them feel uncomfortable – on the Internet or in the schoolyard – and, as they get older, by teaching them how to spot and respond to emotional manipulation. The good news is that most teens are effectively handling online requests from strangers – the bigger challenge is helping them handle sexual advances from people they know.
It’s important to understand the real risks young people face on the Internet, especially in regards to sexual exploitation. Who is at risk of sexual harm and why? What activities are markers for higher risk and how can we protect those youth who are most vulnerable. This section explores these topics.