Unfortunately, the signs of online child sexual abuse and exploitation are not always easy to identify.
Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that it is the relationships we have with children are what help keep them safe. You know the children in your life best and if you feel something is wrong, it probably is.
Possible signs of online child sexual abuse and exploitation
Having strong relationships with the children and young people in our lives helps us to teach them that being asked by someone to keep a secret from a trusted adult isn’t right. If you learn that a child has been asked to keep a secret, it’s important to ask them more about it, and let them know that it’s safe for them to tell you. We’ll learn more about this in Claire’s story.
Sharing personal information
Children and young people might follow individuals on social media or have friends they regularly interact with online, but we need them to understand that it isn’t okay to share their personal information like their phone number, address or even which school they attend. If someone asks for these details, this is something the child should let us know. We’ll learn more about this in Claire’s story, when she is asked to share her mobile phone number.
Introducing to others
Often, when perpetrators attempt to exploit children online, their tactics may involve introductions to other ‘friends’. In reality, these are all adults who use fictitious ‘trusted relationships’ to trick children. These ‘friends’ may be positioned as older, cooler teenagers or young adults, who are more likely to push boundaries of safety. Children and young people may want to feel a sense of belonging, which can lead them to feel pressured to comply with requests that make them feel uncomfortable. In Claire’s story, we’ll hear about how ‘Dylan’ is introduced as the older boyfriend of her friend ‘Morgan’.
Perpetrators of online sexual abuse and exploitation may spend long periods of time trying to build a relationship before they first ask for something from a child or young person. This way, the child feels like the request is more reasonable, because it’s coming from someone they know and can trust. Being asked to share a photo can be a serious red flag for risk, that can lead to more requests, like photos without clothes on.
Particularly for children entering or living through adolescence, who might be conscious of their body image, receiving compliments about their body might feel good for a short time. These are serious risks, and it’s important that we ensure children understand the risk of sharing photos of themselves online, especially with people they don’t know. We’ll see how this unfortunately happens to Claire in her story.
You might be able to talk to the children in your life about the signs above, to help them become aware what to be cautious about.
General signs of risk
While children and young people might show behavioural signs or changes that can point to possible risks, it’s important to recognise when there might be something really serious happening. For most children and young people, the following are things to watch for, and talk to a professional about. If you notice any of the following, it’s important to talk to someone like a school Wellbeing Coordinator or GP about, or if you’re really concerned contact your state or territory’s Child Protection service.
- Showing sexual behaviours or knowledge which is not in line with their age and stage of development
- Receiving or having unexplained money or gifts
- Going missing, or unexplained absences
- Regularly using drugs or drinking alcohol
- Engaging in self harm, including significant weight loss or gain
Other possible signs
You might notice other changes in a child or young person’s behaviour that are important to take notice of. These changes might also be signs of some other issue impacting their life – or they might be a simple difference in the child, as they grow and change. Either way, it’s important to take notice and have a conversation with the children and young people in your life if you notice any of these possible signs.
- Changes in their online habits – spending more/less time online, only being online in private
- Changes in mood or behaviour
- Changes to their sleep patterns or always feeling tired
- Changing their appearance
- Being more secretive about what they are doing
- Withdrawing from relationships with family or friends
- Talking about new friends who aren’t part of their normal friendship group
- Skipping school or changes in their performance at school