Buy your child digital gadgets for Christmas? Talk safety, boundaries with them: Expert

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In a techno-world, parents need to be techno-tough.

That’s the message from police and cyber safety experts in the wake of holiday gifts that connect kids to the rest of the world.

Norfolk OPP recently said that a 12-year-old girl shared sexually explicit photos with a stranger she met through a cellphone app.

Hers is not an isolated case. The police reported that they have seen an increase of reports of young people being asked to share explicit images or videos of themselves over the Internet.

The latest incident prompted police to send out a reminder to parents that they need to discuss cyber safety with their children before handing over that brand-new cellphone or gaming device.

It’s good advice, said Catherine Tabak, manager of cybertip.ca, part of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, based in Winnipeg, particularly at this time of year when so many new pieces of technology have been gifted to kids over the holidays.

“Those devices are being gifted and those conversations aren’t happening before they open up the gifts,” she said.

Cybertip is Canada’s tip line for reporting incidents of online sexual exploitation. “Part of our role is to essentially triage tips from the public pertaining to potentially illegal incidents and then we forward those off to the appropriate law enforcement agency and if needed, if there is a child in need of protection, we forward that off to the appropriate child protection agency across Canada,” she said.

Often, tips come to them from young people who have found themselves in situation that have gone too far and “outside of the scope for someone from that age group to manage on their own and they are reaching out to us for help because they fear consequences from their parents.”

While age 12, as was the case in the Norfolk County incident, is considered young, Tabak said they have had calls involving children as young as eight.

Tabak said they separate the incidents they receive into to two distinct categories. One is “self-peer exploitation,” defined by Tabak as a youth who sends an image to a friend, a boyfriend or a girlfriend and that image is distributed further.

The other grouping is luring incidents where young people are being connected online with offenders either through apps or online gaming “and then either they are coerced or a request comes in for them to send a sexual picture.”

With so much time spent online, most often unsupervised, “they are easily able to connect with people and the opportunity is there for offenders to connect with youth with some of these apps that are very popular within their age group.

“It is certainly very common for us to see that.”

That’s why it’s so important for parents to become cyber-wise and lay out ground rules for online usage.

“Those conversations really need to start happening as soon as the child gains access to technology. The conversation will look very different at a younger age, but as they grow up there really needs to be a consistent, open communication with them about the risks associated to it,” Tabak said.

Those conversations aren’t easy, she said, particularly if the lines haven’t been opened up early about the safe technology use. Parents have to get over the “awkward” nature of the topic and set down firm online practices.

In luring situations in particular, “often times there’s grooming, there’s coercion happening in those communications and youth are less likely to come to a parent until something’s really gone too far and the situation has gotten really out of hand,” Tabak said.

As for inappropriate “selfies,” Tabak said it’s rare to see a young person simply post it online themselves. More often the image has been shared in what a youth might think is a loving relationship “where they feel like they trust the other person.

“It’s the breakdown of that relationship that tends to contribute to the further distribution of the image,” she said.

Once that happens, the image can be shared at breakneck speed across the web and youths may not realize “the lasting effect that can have.”

“It certainly needs to be part of the conversation that parents are having with their kids when they are handing over devices and doing regular check-ins with them.”

Those discussions need to be about “healthy boundaries and respect for one another.”

Also those talks need to reinforce “respect for yourself as well and knowing the signs when someone is making you feel uneasy or not respecting your boundaries.”

Tabak said that young people between 13 and 17 – the high school years – are practically posting their entire lives on social media platforms and feel an unprecedented ease with the technology.

But what also must be considered is that they are often modeling what they see from their parents and their online activity. Tabak called is “sharenting” – when parents frequently post photographs of their children, sending the signal that it’s acceptable behaviour.

“Having boundaries set in that respect as well is really important because you want to be mentoring your child to teach themselves that you have to have a certain level of respect for yourself and respect of privacy for yourself and others,” Tabak said.

The key is to keep open all lines of communication so that young people feel comfortable to come forward at the first sign of trouble.

She said the parents who call the tip line to report issues that their child had told them at the very early stages of making them feel uncomfortable are “a breath of fresh air to hear.”

“Obviously that parent has taken time to build rapport with their child,” she said, and have created “a safe space and know the parents are there no matter what.”

Suspicious online activity can be reported at cybertip.ca

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