by Merlyn Horton, Executive Director

lateI spent fifteen years as a youth worker and when I wrote my first article about children, youth and the internet, the prevailing concerns were about online sexual exploitation and the vulnerabilities inherent in letting children loose in the un-restricted wild west show that was the internet. Then, we were concerned about MSN instant messaging and pedophiles who might lure young people out of their homes to be sexually assaulted.  I remember reading the transcripts of the first Interpol meeting (1996 Lyon France), where law enforcement started to talk about the challenges of the organized, established, world-wide networks of adults with a sexual interest in children that were emerging online.

When I wrote “Reducing Child Victimization”(2001) law enforcement responses were beginning to be implemented. In March of that year, the Canadian government introduced one if it’s first internet responses by amending the Criminal Code to include offenses that targeted criminals who use the Internet to lure and exploit children for sexual purposes and making it a crime to transmit, make available, export and intentionally access child pornography on the Internet (Omnibus Bill C-15). International law enforcement and human rights efforts were manifesting to address the issue as well. The World Congresses Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children were held in Stockholm (1996), Yokohama (2001) and Rio de Janeiro (2008), and began to identify online exploitation and the lack of understanding about the effects of online abuse.

“At present we have very little information about what happens to children therapeutically when they have been identified as being subjected to abuse through the new technologies, and what information we have is country specific, e.g., Germany (von Weiler, 2008) and Sweden (BUP Elefanten, 2008). The same is also true with children who are identified as engaging in abusive behaviour against other children (Moultrie, 2007).”  E Quayle, 2008

At the Third World Congress law makers and child rights advocates expressed their concerns about emerging online issues, heard from child victims of online sexual exploitation and made recommendations to their member countries. While there were beginning to be high-level international awareness about the impacts that online communications were going to have on youth risk, what wasn’t happening were changes at the frontline. There wasn’t a concurrent development of education, child protection, and general awareness by professional who serve youth about the massive cultural changes going on right under their noses.

In the beginning, when worries of pedophiles luring our children through MSN Instant Messenger were an occasional alarming flicker in the media, we missed a chance. Educators, youth workers, child protection, sexual abuse counsellors, criminal justice professionals and all adults who care for and are concerned about them, missed a chance. We missed being as proficient online as the predators. We missed out on leading our children into this new brave world as we ourselves explored it. Whether because of lack of interest (“I’m not techy”), or lack of time (human service jobs are labour intensive activities already) or resources (“retraining dollars are hard to come by in the non-profit sector”), we missed out on our opportunity to engage early and educate our children by being informed users of the media. We missed out on being there for them as elders, mentors and advisors.

At SOLOS, our response to the increasing gap between youth and professional adults was to publish the “Introduction to Online Sexual Exploitation: Curriculum” (2003), which provided an overview of online environments, predators and youth activities. Then in 2004, we produced  our “Organizational Assessment Tools“. This simple template outlined one way to assess the current situation in a community service or youth outreach program. It made recommendations about getting up to speed technologically and where to begin training, and re-training efforts in the sector. But it was still to easy to ignore then.

In 2007, it didn’t seem too late to shake up the industry I love so much and bring about a change in the way we engage with youth AND technology.  SOLOS prepared a document titled “Bridging the Gap: Best Practices and Policies to Address the Online High-Risk Activities of Youth in BC” with funding from The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General of British Columbia. The 128 page report suggests that a policy strategy to combat online sexual exploitation of youth should be based on a human services approach, should favour cooperation and coordination amongst industry, government, NGOs and the public, and have a strong focus on education, awareness, research and training.

The document was also an annotated overview of the protection and educational resources and approaches being used internationally. It suggested a topography for examining high-risk activities of youth online and suggested remedies. Still, neither provincially nor federally stakeholders have come together to create some sort of comprehensive response.

Now in 2013, social media. The unimaginable beast that has risen over the horizon of online culture is, sometimes, tragically the tool of social murder, sexual assault and dysfunctional clusters of e-obsessed young people.

Sherry Turkle, danah boyd, Ethel Quayle to name  but a few – have started the work of understanding how this new paradigm of culture is affecting the way youth think about their identities, relationships and place in the world. More work needs to be done.

I know that before change has to come awareness. I hope it’s filtering through now. I know that many caring people in the fields of social work, law enforcement, child protection and child care are doing their best to grapple with these new issues and update their practices and approaches to young people harmed by assaults in new online settings. There are professionals starting to take a chance and try new ways of working. We need more. We need it faster.

Here, we shall continue delivering our school-based and professional programs,  creating awareness and educating communities, collaborating and building partnerships, and working towards our vision :  “a world where all youth are safe online”.

It’s still not too late.