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After sextortion reports, agency says education around online safety is key

There's been a growing trend of peer-to-peer exploitation online, says an expert
B.C. educator Joseph James Hizon Arnesto breached professional boundaries multiple times.

In the wake of a warning issued by Kamloops police after multiple reports of sextortion, a community educator says it’s important for parents and youth to understand internet safety and how to spot red flags when interacting with others online.

Last month, Kamloops RCMP said officers received six reports from people who were blackmailed after sharing intimate images online. Some of these instances involved teenagers.

Camila Jimenez, program manager for PLEA Community Services, said the agency works with schools and parent advisory groups across the province, running age-appropriate workshops about staying safe online.

Jimenez said it is important parents play an active role when it comes to facilitating conversations around online safety and understanding which apps or games their child is using.

“Ideally, you want to be having these conversations early — before you hand over their first device — about what safety is going to look like on that device,” Jimenez said.

“You would never hand over the keys of a car to a young person without getting them through driving lessons. They need to know the rules. …But what's happening with parents is they are handing over technology, which can be used as a weapon in a sense, without giving them an education or the tools to be able to protect themselves.”

Jimenez said just like adults, youth are spending more time online having interactions and forming connections, especially due to the pandemic.

She said while online spaces, apps and games are fun, they are also spaces where bonds are created between people who haven’t met in person, which can make it easier for exploiters to build a relationship.

“Kids need to know, what are the red flags? What are you going to do if someone asks you to move from one app to another — so from Minecraft online gaming to Instagram,” Jimenez said.

“That is a tactic that exploiters use to gain more information about that child's life, you're automatically going to get that on a different platform,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez said she has also noted a growing trend of peer-to-peer exploitation.

“What a lot of people wouldn't know — for example, what a lot of parents maybe wouldn't recognize — is that a lot of the exploitation that's happening in terms of re-sharing sexual images or videos is being done by peers. So the youth themselves,” Jimenez said.

She said often, youth don’t realize sharing a sexual image or video of a peer is a form of exploitation.

"It's really important to remember that anyone under the age of 18 is not able to consent to that, and that this is actually a child abuse image,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez said it is most important parents are known by their children as a safe place to bring concerns.

Jimenez said youth who take PLEA workshops will often say they wouldn’t talk to their parents about red flags they experience because they fear having their technology taken away, or because they believe their parents wouldn’t understand.

“It's a matter of normalizing those conversations, bringing it up to the table. And starting that really at an early age,” she said.

She said it’s also important to discuss the matter early on in schools.

She said PLEA Community Services’ workshops held for younger grades will discuss healthy and unhealthy relationships and consent. For older grades, workshop facilitators will discuss exploitation, where people are being targeted, and how youth can keep themselves safe.

“It's an interactive workshop, it's meant to be done in a role play in really accurate scenarios of true life events that have actually happened. The focus is really to give the kids the awareness and the language, the skills to be able to recognize and protect themselves if this is happening,” Jimenez said.

She said the issue of sexual exploitation impacts every community across the province, which is why it’s important to ensure conversations around online safety continue.

“We need to start the dialogue now, if we haven't already, in order to help prevent this from happening in the future,” Jimenez said.

Kamloops RCMP also encourage parents to discuss online behaviour and to openly talk about online activity. In a statement, police said anyone who has an uncomfortable interaction online should trust their instincts and end the conversation immediately.

According to police, if anyone believes they are being sexually exploited online, they should immediately stop communicating with the perpetrator and shouldn't comply with any threats.

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