For All Seasons Rape Crisis Center is continually looking for ways to raise awareness about sexual assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSCRC), sexual harassment, assault, and abuse can happen anywhere, including online spaces. During Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, NSCRC is educating the public about safer ways to be online today. Some of the organization’s tips relate to how we connect online, how we practice digital consent and intervening when we see harmful content or behaviors online to ensure that online spaces — whether they be workspaces, classrooms, social media platforms, or otherwise — are respectful and safe.
During the pandemic, there has been an increased risk for keeping children safe online and preventing online trauma as they participate in virtual school and communicate with friends digitally through online apps instead of in person. While there may be uncertainty about how much we will be online in the future, one thing we know is that by teaching our children to interact with each other more respectfully and safely, we can help prevent sexual assault and abuse online.
Bill Jones, Dorchester County State’s Attorney, recently spoke with For All Seasons staff about preventing sexual abuse among children who experience greater exposure to risks online today. Jones and his Victim Witness Coordinator, Patti Dickerson McMahon, work with For All Seasons Rape Crisis Center staff in supporting sexual assault survivors who are working within the judicial system in Dorchester County.
“The Internet has created the opportunity for so many things, and so many of those things are good, and so many of those things are bad. And in virtually every type of crime, you can imagine there is some Internet involvement,” comments Jones.
Jones points to how easy it is now to transmit data on the Internet – whether it’s photographs, identification information, or one’s location. There are new applications every day that provide ways to share information and meet people like never before.
“Let’s understand that there is a group of people out there using social media for exactly what our greatest fear is. They are looking for kids. They are meeting kids, they are grooming kids, and they are trying to create situations where they can have sexual relationships with these underage kids. And sometimes these kids don’t survive the encounter,” he adds.
Because Jones points out that children can access the Internet from so many devices now – laptops for schoolwork, iPads for games, their phones, and even now Smart TVs, that parents have to be vigilant in monitoring online activity. Another factor during the pandemic is that children, in general, have more time on their hands and perhaps less supervision than before when they were physically in school and participating in extracurricular activities. Parents need to be aware that kids can have multiple social media accounts and they may be showing the parent one account while hiding activity on another.
“I think that if parents would just talk to their kids about the two sides – two types of problems that really plague us the most, which is the transmission of data, photographs, videos, things like that and then the meeting of people. Because the meeting of people, that’s not a temporary thing, that is a means to something else, that is a means to an actual physical meeting up . . . so it’s something that starts off small, and then it snowballs into a situation that’s dangerous for everybody,” he adds.
Jones suggests posing the question to young people, “Why would you want the whole world to know where you are all the time when it includes people who you don’t know at all?” He adds that when you do this, you are not only placing yourself in jeopardy, but your friends, your family members, and everything else. Jones continues to explain that adults and parents need to consider the same question. Over-sharing and posting lots of information about your life and the lives of your children, may not always be safe. He states, “So really what it comes down to is just because you can share all this information doesn’t mean you should.”
The NSVRC suggests the following tips we can share with our children to protect them against online sexual harassment and abuse:
Practice Consent and Show Respect for Boundaries:
- It’s never okay to try to unlock someone else’s phone without permission or look through their inbox or texts
- Check if it’s okay before sharing information outside of your one-on-one chat
- Agreeing on a platform and giving options when communicating like letting everyone know it’s okay to leave their webcam off during a video call
Share the Red Flags of Online Grooming:
- Asking to keep the relationship secret
- Making suggestive or sexual comments
- Asking the child about their sexual background (have they been kissed, are they a virgin, etc.)
- Sending links to suggestive images, memes, or porn
- Asking the child to only contact them on certain apps
The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA) suggests that because children are now spending more and more time online, on social media, the Internet, and online games, parents need to be aware of the risk of online predators even more. They suggest parents pay attention to what online platforms their children are using and stay alert to any signs of distress linked with their children’s online activity.
For further information about keeping children safe from sexual harassment, assault, and abuse online, visit https://www.nsvrc.org/resource-topics/sexual-assault-awareness-month or https://mcasa.org/prevention/online-safety. For sexual assault support services and information visit: https://forallseasonsinc.org/rape-crisis-center/ or call 410-822-1018.
For All Seasons provides the highest level of mental health and victim services to children, adults and families across the Mid-Shore. Services are offered in both English and Spanish and include therapy, psychiatry, victim advocacy and 24-hour crisis hotlines.