“Sexting” or “sending nudes” has become increasingly common amongst teens and adults alike as a way to enhance relationships and explore sexuality. Though most nudes shared between two people don’t wind up circulating online, it is an inherent risk that users take when they share explicit content via the internet. Don’t take them. Don’t share them. These two concepts go a long way in keeping youth safe online and will go even further when incorporated into larger conversations about sex and healthy relationships. No, “sexting” was likely not part of “the talk” you got from your parents growing up, but it’s important that we include discussions about explicit images, online actions and digital consent in “the talk” in the 21st century.
But My Kids Are Too Young to Talk About Sex!
According to some experts, they probably aren’t! Doctors interviewed by the University of Pennsylvania noted that 8 or 9 years old is the typical age parents begin talking to their children about puberty and sexual development. Child safety experts recommend teaching children the proper names for their private parts as soon as they begin learning the names for other body parts, around age 2—head, shoulders, knees, toes, penis or vagina- these words are ALL OK! This is also the time to teach kids that there are some parts of their bodies that shouldn’t be touched by others aside from hygiene and medical care. This awareness of body boundaries can help protect children from sexual abuse and enable them to communicate effectively about a transgression or abuse if it ever were to occur.
What’s the Tech Connection?
How many picture/video-enabled devices does your child have access to? Between video calls with relatives, virtual classrooms and in-home smart electronics, kids today are growing up around more video and recording systems than any generation prior. This means they are also exposed to this technology at a much younger age and begin incorporating it into their daily routines without much conscious effort or thought. This effortless integration could pose a safety risk if kids and families don’t take the time to be intentional about when and how they use technology. It’s a good idea to set limits with children early regarding tech use. Be sure to include the child in crafting the rules and limits, as they may be more likely to stick to them if they feel like they’ve had agency in designing them!
Some guidelines NCMEC parents have found helpful:
- For all: No phones/tablets in the bathroom.
- For all: Charge all phones for the night in a room other than bedrooms and use an old-fashioned alarm clock to wake up.
- For kids: Always be truthful about your age when downloading games/apps- there are often built-in safety features for young users.
- For parents: Remember that kids make mistakes, and the internet may magnify those mistakes, but being overly punitive or shaming your child will likely prevent them from seeking and receiving help.
Daily life is full of natural entry points to safety discussions. One NCMEC parent shared this interaction she had with her young son:
“Can we video call grandma!?”
“Not right now, it’s bath time, and we don’t do video calls during bath time.”
“Because in the bath you’re not wearing clothes, and the parts of your body that are private from other people are also private from pictures, videos and the internet.”
Having conversations like this while children are still young helps them make sense of the limits put in place for technology use and gives them a framework within which they can explore and expand their online lives; “I can use this site/game/app, but I don’t do X and Y on it because __________.” This core understanding about digital boundaries and body safety can help protect children from online exploitation later.
My Child Wouldn’t Send Nudes Though…
Maybe not, but that’s not the only way offenders acquire sexual images of children. NCMEC’s CyberTipline has received reports of offenders taking screen captures from moments of otherwise innocent videos in which a slip up or momentary lapse exposes a child’s undergarments or private parts. Or children innocently film what would otherwise be somewhat typical exploration off their own bodies or curiosity play with another child- it’s normal for children to play “I’ll show you mine and if you show me yours” kind of games, but when this play involves cameras and the internet this typical behavior by children can become exploitative.
Both of the above situations are rare. The most common way offenders acquire sexual content of children is simply asking for it, followed by offering/exchanging images of “themselves”* (often inauthentic images of someone else). Many parents believe their child would never intentionally share sexual or inappropriate content of themselves online, but, as Lindsey Olson, executive director of NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division, says, “Offenders are very effective at grooming children, gaining their trust, isolating them from their parents and then exploiting them. Parents often think that it would ‘never’ happen to their child, but we know that is simply not true.”
So, What Can I Do About It?
Talk to your child about these issues in an age-appropriate way as soon as they start using technology and continue to deepen these conversations as they get older. To help equip and guide these conversations, NCMEC creates educational content based directly on data from the CyberTipline. Our most recent product, Into the Cloud, is specifically crafted for children ages 5-10, their families and educators. An ideal entry point for those looking for a modern and approachable way to broach digital safety with children, this online web series has two seasons consisting of 12 short episodes focusing on important digital safety topics including dealing with cyberbullying, maintaining online privacy, identifying trustworthy information, reporting unsafe behaviors, livestreaming safety, talking to trusted adults and reporting and removing inappropriate content. Each episode has an accompanying guide that provides additional information on the safety issue presented in the video and ways to engage both younger and older children in conversation about the topic.
Season 2 of Into the Cloud directly addresses the issue of digital blackmail and inappropriate content. Zion, a young gamer and new friend of Nettie and Webster, finds himself being extorted for 10,000 goldies (game currency) after a user screen grabs a shot of Zion mooning the camera as he goofed off while livestreaming with his gaming friends. The season explores how Zion shares this information with his father and how he can contact the platform to remove his explicit image from their servers. The subject matter, though serious, is addressed in an age-appropriate and relatable manner that children of all ages can understand.
All Into the Cloud resources are free to download. Adults interested in learning more about online exploitation prevention can do so at Missingkids.org/netsmartz/topics, while kids can learn and play on the kid-safe site NetSmartzKids.org.