Any boy, girl or young person with a smartphone in hand has the possibility of receiving and exchanging messages with any unknown person anywhere in the world. Relationship, information and communication technologies allow new forms of communication and interaction for minors, but also the appearance and increase of new forms of abuse.
Online sexual requests and interactions by adults are a negative consequence of the new online environment in which children and adolescents move, and one of the most pernicious problems, because it is asymmetric: being caused by an adult, it places the minor in a situation of great vulnerability and helplessness and can cause serious psychosocial problems.
Capture, seduction and manipulation
Sexual solicitation refers to online requests that minors receive from adults to send them photos or videos of a sexual nature, answer sexual questions, or engage in sexual activity online or in real life. On the other hand, sexualized interaction is when the minor interacts in the online context with an adult by sending them photos or videos of a sexual nature, having sexual conversations, or meeting the adult to have sex.
Sometimes these requests and interactions are part of a process of recruitment, seduction and manipulation (grooming is the most used term in English) in which the minor develops a feeling of attachment and intimacy towards the adult who hides primarily sexual intentions.
Nearly two in ten are harassed
At the international level, there are meta-analyses that indicate that 11.5% of minors (12-16 years old) received requests of a sexual nature over the Internet.
In the Spanish context, a recent UNICEF report indicates that one in ten adolescents has received a sexual proposition from an adult on the Internet. Another recent study indicates that 12.6% of minors reported sexual requests and 7.9% maintained sexualized interactions with adults through the Internet.
The experts have also investigated the frequency with which this phenomenon occurs, in a longitudinal study over 13 months: sexual solicitations appear with a prevalence of 23% and interactions with 14%. The incidence, that is, the new cases that appeared during those 13 months, was 10%.
Regarding the differences based on sex and age, the UNICEF report shows that girls receive more requests and have more sexualized interactions with adults. As the age of minors increases, so does the prevalence of these problems; which can be explained in part because minors are entering puberty where there is a greater interest in their sexuality.
Victims in whom this type of abuse becomes chronic over time have a worse health-related quality of life.
Online parental mediation
Regarding families, the best way to prevent this problem is to supervise the use that our minors make of the Internet, establish clear rules about what they can do and with whom, and accompany them in their use to inform and warn them of this type of risk.
Online parental mediation (which is nothing more than maximizing the opportunities and minimizing the risks of Internet use for their sons and daughters) is the best educational and social vaccine to reduce risks.
In this way, actively monitoring, restricting unknown contacts and talking and discussing with children about their safety on the network are some of the key strategies to greatly reduce this unfortunate problem.
It is possible to think that even part of what has been said can be channeled through the use of a parental contract such as the one proposed by Internet Security for Kids (ISFK) or the ANAR Foundation. These contracts are a basis for each family to discuss and adapt the terms as they deem most appropriate.
By educational centers, prevention programs can be implemented such as Brief preventive intervention in grooming (Calvete et al., 2021) and the Safety.net program (Ortega-Barón et al., 2021), which provide information, awareness and offer some guidelines to stay safe from this type of abuse on the network.
Good practices for minors
If we focus on the minors themselves, some of the recommendations are:
Do not send sexual or provocative photos or videos, or tell your intimacies to strangers. Sending information over the Internet means losing control of it and that what is sent ends up in the hands of someone you do not want or published where you do not want.
Do not give in to blackmail, do not send or do what it tells you. It will not stop: it will always ask you for more photos or videos, it will threaten you and it will hurt you more.
Save the conversations, photos, videos before blocking the stalker. They will come in handy when reporting to the police. Your parents and the police will protect you.
Urgently tell your parents or an adult. They will know exactly what to do to protect you. Bullies will tell you not to do it and make you feel guilty, but you should know that this is not the case… Talk to your parents or another adult. Let yourself help.
It is extremely important that we are aware of this type of danger on the Internet to avoid them or know how to deal with them at any given time. It is in our power to protect and guarantee the well-being of our minors.