How to build safe spaces online


Categoría: Parenting, Prevention & Education

Tipo: Blog

Smartphone in handIt’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and this year, KCSARC is focusing on strategies we can all take to make online spaces safer for all, especially for the young people in our lives. We wanted to share some of the trends our prevention team is seeing and what parents and caregivers can do to keep their children safe.

First, it’s important to understand that sexual violence takes place on a continuum, ranging from raunchy jokes or homophobic slurs to physical abuse. The effect is intentional: to control, humiliate and take power from someone else.

Whether it happens in person or online, these behaviors can inflict lasting distress, even trauma. We can help survivors by understanding that everyone reacts differently, and by taking a survivor’s reaction seriously.

Next, it may sound obvious, but not every user on the internet is well-intentioned. Not everyone who means harm looks “creepy” and not every tactic used will seem like “grooming.”

For example, people who influence others through their online presence –whether podcast hosts, strangers on dating apps, industry experts – hold power over their viewers. And they may seem like friends.

Anyone can create a profile online and start recording, writing, and posting in the hope like-minded viewers of their content will hit the follow button and digest every post.

A relationship where one person invests interest, time and energy into another person — who doesn’t even know the other person exists — is called a “parasocial relationship.” These relationships are most common between viewers and celebrities or so-called “influencers.”

“Parents and caregivers should keep in mind we’re in a world where very little differentiation is made between in-person and online relationships,” said Chris Johnson, director of prevention and education services at KCSARC.

“Almost everyone knows an adult in a long-term relationship that started online, or you might consider your connections on Facebook ‘friends’ to some degree. But young people, who don’t yet have the lived experiences that most adults do, are particularly vulnerable to abuse online, just as they are at higher risk of abuse offline,” Chris said. “They need an ally they can really trust if harmful behavior happens, whether the person harming them is a stranger, or people they know or think they know.”

A report published in the American Psychological Association says children between ages 8-12 typically spend four to six hours on screens and devices each day, while teenagers spend an average of seven to nine hours daily.

That is a lot of time to explore the many outlets of the internet, and not all of this is bad; it can be beneficial to our mental health and well-being to have outlets for connecting especially when things like public health prevents us from being with people in person.

But there are also risks and downsides. Parents should never overlook the fact that their young person is using a device or platform where they can be harassed even by people they know, or accessed by strangers – including those that young person perceives as a friend or trusted source.

“When new technology is introduced, young people are often the first adopters,” said Jessica Cowles, KCSARC’s prevention services specialist. “Who else are early adopters? People looking to take advantage of a place where parents/caregivers are disinterested or unengaged. If we don’t take the time to understand how devices and platforms work, we’re really doing a disservice to our kiddos.”

So how can parents empower themselves — and their child — to identify and respond to harassment, grooming or abuse, whether that happens in person or online?

Whether you think your adolescent or teen is just playing games on the iPad, finishing a research paper on the laptop, or rolling their eyes in protest as usual as they give up their phone before dinner, ask yourself:

  • Do I know all the ways this platform or device allows others to communicate with my child?
  • Who does my child idolize and how does my child interact with them?
  • What information has my child shared about themselves?
  • Does my child understand they can come to me if they see harmful comments or content, and that I won’t judge them or minimize what they’re experiencing?
  • Do I know how to identify red flags that can indicate grooming?

Parents and caregivers can start early and hold space for conversations with their child about concepts like boundaries and consent that will decrease their risk of harm, whether in person or online. When we show an interest in what our young person is doing online, it strengthens connection and trust. Those foundational lessons help ensure that if something is happening in your young person’s life that they can’t handle, the likelier they are to turn to you.

For more resources, visit our prevention education page.

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