Research shows that one in five girls and 1 in 10 boys will be sexually victimized before they reach adulthood[i] in the United States.
To put this in real numbers: In 2011 there were 75.6 million children living in the United States. Assuming a 50/50 split by gender, this would mean the following:
- 11,340,00 of these children will be sexually exploited by the age of 18.
- 7,560,000 of these sexually exploited children will be girls.
- 3,780,000 will be boys.
Most victims will be abused by someone they know – a family member or trusted adult -- while some will be abused by people they met exclusively online, and some will be abducted.
To reduce the chances of your child becoming a victim, or becoming a repeat victim, it is imperative that children be taught key safety concepts, how to set boundaries, and when to find an adult to get help.
You can help protect your child from sexual exploitation in both physical and digital forms by leveraging the following points:
- Talk, and keep on talking to your children about appropriate and inappropriate conversations, pictures and touching. Start when kids are young, talk frequently, and make the conversation’s focus practical, not scary.
- Keep your perspective. Yes, there are sexual predators offline and online, and yes they are trawling for targets, but they are not stalking every child every moment of the day or night. Only a fraction of youth will experience full-blown solicitation or exploitation, but all children should be forearmed.
- Warning kids about “creepy strangers” is off target. Predators look like anyone else – even family members.
- Instead of saying don’t let “strangers” talk to you about inappropriate topics, or touch you… (which implies it’s ok if others do), say no one – not mommy, not daddy, not brother, not uncle, not family friend, no one – is allowed to make you feel uncomfortable, talk to you about your body, touch you in private places or take photos of you undressed or barely dressed.
- Leverage internet family safety tools (also called parental controls), and monitor online communications. Depending on the age and maturity of your child/teen, use family safety settings and tools (also called parental controls) that are transparent so your child knows what’s being monitored, which can help detect potentially at-risk communications. Bear in mind that family members and trusted adults often use the internet as a tool in their grooming processes, so watch all communications -- not just those from strangers.
- Though Facebook is the most popular social networking site, it isn’t the best site for young teens – and it does not allow access for users under 13.
- Instead, use one of the social networking sites that was actually designed with safety as a core principle from the ground up. You want a site that uses moderators and screening since these vastly decrease the likelihood that your child will be solicited by a predator – whether that be a sexual predator, an emotional predator, a physical predator or a reputational predator.
- Help tweens and teens understand that sending a sexual image of themselves to someone else can have far-reaching consequences. There is a whole segment of the population beyond their boyfriends and girlfriends who is very interested in seeing these pictures, touching the pictures, kissing the pictures and masturbating to the pictures.
Should their photos fall into the hands of a person interested in child pornography, it is likely to be traded and shared many thousands of times.
- Listen, and keep on listening to your children. Your kids won’t tell you about risks if you aren’t listening and being thoughtful about your reactions and comments.
- If you have a history of freaking out, taking away their internet access, etc., when they come to you about something, then you’ve taught them not to come to you. This increases their vulnerability as the very people they should be able to turn to have become unapproachable.
- Build trust that you will be calm, listen, and find the right solution no matter what they bring to you.
- It is never the victim’s fault. It’s tragic if any child is abused, but statistics say a percentage of kids will experience sexual exploitation instigated either online or offline. It is never their fault. As with all sexual crimes, there is only one person at fault: the predator.
- Sexual acts with minors are illegal and exploitive. And as a society, everyone must be committed to protecting minors, even when they act against their own best interests. Yes, they might have done something to put themselves at greater risk, but they are the victim, not the abuser.
- Understand that sexual predators frequently try to make a child believe that the abuse was the child’s fault or something they wanted, because if the child feels guilty or ashamed they will be much less likely to report it. Predators may say, “You wouldn’t have contacted me if you didn’t want it,” or, “I only did this because I thought it was what you wanted.”
- If a parent or authority figure makes a remark to an abused child or teen like and says, “What were you thinking?” or, “What was your part in this?” the child or teen may see that comment as a sign you are siding with the predator and placing the blame on him or her. You need to start your response to your child with, “It is not your fault, and you are safe. I will protect you.” If you or any other adult in any way reinforces the predator’s message that the victim bears the guilt, you remove the last shreds of hope from the child that they will be believed, nurtured and protected by those they need support from the most.
If you believe a child is being abused or know a child abuser, don’t hesitate. Call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline 1-800-THE-LOST, and use its website’s reporting tool or call your local law enforcement agency.
[i] [D. Finkelhor. “Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse.” The Future of Children: Sexual Abuse of Children, 1994, volume 4, page 37.]