In fact, many teens feel safer and more confident flirting online than face-to-face. But it’s also important for young people to be aware that not every relationship online is a safe or healthy one.
Research has shown that not all youth are equally at risk of online sexual exploitation. Instead, predators identify young people who are the most vulnerable and begin a process of grooming that may lead to exchanging sexual talk, photos or videos online or to meeting in person.
The majority of victims of sexual exploitation are girls, though boys who are gay or who are questioning their sexuality are also more likely to be victims. An exception is “sextortion,” a form of sexual exploitation that involves persuading young people to share explicit photos and then blackmailing them with the threat of sharing those, and which is experienced more often by boys than girls. In all forms of sexual exploitation, nearly all victims are teens, with an average age of thirteen and a half. There is some evidence that Black and Indigenous girls are at greater risk as well.
In general, the young people who are vulnerable to online exploitation are those who are vulnerable offline as well: youth who have experienced physical or sexual abuse, who suffer from depression, or who lack close relationships with family or peers are all more likely to be targeted by predators, as are youth who have intellectual disabilities or autism spectrum disorder. Young people who have not learned about normal sexual development and healthy sexuality, who have not been taught the differences between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour, and do not feel they can talk to their parents or guardians about sexuality are also at increased risk of being targeted, as are those who encounter pornography in the home and who are frequently unsupervised online or offline.
With the exception of fully anonymous platforms, it’s not possible to identify particular games or social networks as being more risky spaces than others. In almost every case, young people prefer to use online spaces to communicate with friends and family. However, would-be predators will often make their first contact with vulnerable youth in a mainstream space and then try to move the conversation either to private messages or to an online space where they will not be observed.
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