Life skills are key to safety online for young people

A generic education about life skills may help keep young people safe online, writes Dr Juliane Kloess

CyberSafe Ireland, a not-for-profit established in 2015 and which works to empower children, parents, and teachers to navigate the online world in a safe and responsible manner, published its annual report on September 13.

Only into its second year, the organisation has had a significant impact in reaching out to nearly 5,000 young people between the ages of 8 and 13 in counties across Ireland.

According to the annual report, 22% of the 4,893 children CyberSafe Ireland spoke to directly were in contact with a person online whom they didn’t know in the physical world, with 14% of these taking place once a week and 6% every day.

Based on CyberSafe Ireland’s experiences in schools, the annual report considers the sexual exploitation and abuse of children via internet technologies as one of five key risks.

With this in mind, the use of internet technologies by individuals who seek to initiate contact with children for sexual purposes is of significant concern and requires attention.

Offenders may be monitoring chatroom dialogues, as well as reviewing victims’ onlineprofiles and postings to bulletin boards.

While some may argue that this type of offending behaviour constitutes a very small proportion in comparison to sexual offences overall, risks thereof affect one in five children.

Specifically, there has been a substantial increase in the number of reports of negative experiences by young people in relation to sexual approaches and grooming over recent years, including receiving sexual invitations and messages, as well as being incited to engage in online sexual activity via internet communication platforms.

This has led to a number of internet safety education initiatives Europe-wide, which seek to enhance young people’s knowledge about opportunities, risks, and safety by empowering and equipping them with the necessary skills to use the Internet safely.

To date, research has predominantly focused on the area of child sexual offending online in terms of how the internet is used to commit offences related to the production and distribution of indecent images of children (also known as ‘child pornography’).

Up until 2011, the process of sexual grooming — a process whereby an offender prepares a child for sexual abuse as an underlying dynamic in online interactions between offenders and their victims — was practically unexplored.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham set out to investigate such offences in order to gain a better understanding of the characteristics, modus operandi, and motivations of individuals who engage in offending behaviour that involves sexual grooming as part of sexually exploitative interactions with children via internet technologies.

At the time, there was a lack of research studying this phenomenon using real-world data.

An in-depth analysis of transcripts of chat logs of sexually exploitative interactions between offenders and their victims revealed that they were of a highly sexual nature, with offenders using a range of manipulative strategies — offenders either employed a direct or an indirect approach to conversations with children and initiating contact with them.

The approach offenders employed was also reflected in the types of strategies they used. That is, offenders who employed more of a direct approach also used more blunt/forceful strategies, such as threats.

On the contrary, offenders who employed more of an indirect approach engaged in general conversation making and made use of strategies, such as compliments and flattery, in order to make their victims feel special.

As part of the interactions, offenders incited children to engage in sexually explicit talk and/or activities, as well as requesting sexual images and exposure via webcam.

Of particular interest was that only two offenders were found to engage in aspects of sexual grooming, while the majority of interactions lacked features thereof altogether.

This is an important finding given that this type of offending behaviour, and the interactions with children in which this occurs, are commonly referred to as ‘sexual grooming’.

While young people did engage in some risk-taking behaviours, they were equally aware of personal boundaries.

Applying the terminology and definition of sexual grooming to such interactions is problematic, as it not only hinders recognition of the process by children, but also detection thereof and any associated offending behaviour by police.

When examining offenders’ modus operandi, it became apparent that offenders may target and/or select victims based on a number of characteristics.

For example, offenders may be monitoring chatroom dialogues, as well as reviewing victims’ online profiles and postings to bulletin boards.

In addition to this, research has identified three groups of young people based on their behaviour and responses to approaches by offenders:

(a) resilient,

(b) risk-taking, and

(c) vulnerable.

This highlights that there are some young people who are able to deal with approaches by offenders online; however, there are also young people who present as vulnerable and/or engage in risk-taking behaviour; for example, using the internet a substantial amount of time per day.

Studies have reported relationships between risk-taking behaviour by young people and online victimisation. In interviews with young people who had negative experiences online, feelings of something being wrong or missing from their lives were reported to motivate them to use the internet in the hope it would improve or resolve things.

The authors of the study suggest that such feelings may be indicative of vulnerability, either in the form of problematic experiences in the past or current sentiments of not being listened to or understood, as well as a need to explore sexuality in a way that cannot be fulfilled offline.

Findings from the present research revealed that while young people did engage in some risk-taking behaviours, they were equally aware of personal boundaries and assertively refused to comply with more extreme requests by offenders.

This is a very positive observation that highlights protective behaviour by some young people in terms of having the ability and confidence to decide when to remove themselves from a situation that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and/or risky.

Sadly, other cases involved serious offences of sexual abuse, in which victims presented with a number of vulnerability factors, such as experiencing a relationship break-up, personal and psychological problems, as well as sexual abuse.

Academic David Finkelhor proposes that a more generic education about life skills, rather than a specialised internet safety training, may have the potential to be more effective in terms of prevention.

Many programmes currently lack sufficient intensity, are dominated by scare messages, over-emphasise ‘stranger danger’, and rarely evaluate outcomes.

A recent evaluation of the effectiveness of internet child safety material as part of education programmes delivered in the US revealed that critical elements of effective preventative measures were lacking.

The report further found that most young people are aware that engaging in certain behaviours online may be risky.

Therefore, a more generic education about life skills that focuses on conflict management, empathy promotion, emotional regulation, consequence anticipation, refusal techniques, bystander mobilisation, and help-seeking not only equips young people with useful skills to handle, manage, and deal with arising problems in the physical world, but also online.

Dr Juliane Kloess is a lecturer in forensic psychology and a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Psychology, University of Birmingham

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