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CHILD ABUSE PREVENTION MONTH: Know the risks for children in digital environment

Joyce Prusak, executive director of Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center, urges parents, educators and community members to learn about risks of the online world for children. Risks include cyberbullying, harassment, sexting, online sexual exploitation and negative impact on body image for children. Learning about the dangers and ways to protect children will help keep youth safe.

By Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center

The digital world has become an important part of our lives, with children spending significant time online. Children use technology and devices for a wide range of activities – from playing and connecting with other children to attending classes and learning. Children increasingly use social media, and social media applications, such as TikTok and Instagram, have appeared in news media due to harmful incidents involving young children engaging with strangers or promoting harmful behavior. Risks include cyberbullying, harassment, sexting, online sexual exploitation, and negative impact on body image for children. In the next several weeks, the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center will provide information about these dangers and ways to prevent negative effects.  

“One of the most important aspects of keeping children safe is knowing the facts,” said Joyce Prusak, executive Director of Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center. “Learn about the dangers and have honest conversations with your children. Don’t just focus on the negatives and the risks. Technologies, including social media, games and websites, have positive aspects as well, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Understanding the positive and negative aspects will help you protect your children.” Positive aspects of using technological devices, social media and spending time online include sharing useful content, facilitating knowledge, supporting education and maintaining relationships with family and friends. Studies show that using social media can also enhance life satisfaction and self-esteem.

On the opposite side, spending time online and social media can have harmful impacts. Inappropriate use of social media may negatively affect the physical and psychological health of individuals and lead to social isolation. Teenagers who are very concerned with self-presentation on social media could suffer psychological stress. Additionally, sharing personal information on social media could lead to privacy and security risks.

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“Cyberbullying, rumors, explicit images are among the dangers for youth,” Prusak said.

A Pew Research Center survey revealed 59% of teenagers in the United States have experienced at least one of six types of abusive online behaviors. The study found that the most common type of harassment youth encounter online is name-calling, with 42% who have experienced being called offensive names online or via a phone. Thirty-two of teens said someone has spread false rumors about them online. Twenty-one percent of teens have had someone (not their parent) constantly asking them where they are, who they’re with or what they’re doing. Sixteen percent of teens have received physical threats online. In this study, 25% of teens said they have been sent explicit images they didn’t ask for, and 7% said someone has shared explicit images of them without their consent.

How to protect children?

Have conversations with your child about the positive and negative impacts of technology. When you talk with your children, focus on information and language that’s age appropriate. Make your children aware of the dangers and ask them to let you know if they witness or if they are the target of an incident. Find ways to talk with children so they can learn how to protect themselves. You can use a scene in a book or movie to start the conversation. Ask simple questions to find out what your children know and what they think. Some questions you can ask are: What apps do you like? Why do you like these apps? How often do you use them? Who do you communicate with? And, then, listen attentively to your child’s responses. Stay calm and ensure your children they can tell you anything. When you talk to your children about the dangers of apps, focus on the behavior and not on a specific app. All apps can be used for bad purposes and children need to know how to recognize something that would be harmful. Give examples of harmful behavior and be specific. Tell your children that no one should ask them for pictures or personal information, such as where they live and where they go to school. Tell your children that if they notice inappropriate behavior online, they should leave the app and let you know.

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Implement tech free times and zones in your household. For example, ask your children not to use devices in the kitchen and while the family is dining. You can also set tech free times – no phones before 11 a.m. and after 6 p.m., for example.

Staying aware of the risks and having conversations about them with your children is one of the most important steps you can take in protecting your children.

For more information about keeping children safe, follow Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center on social media and visit Coffee County CAC provides services for children who have experienced severe abuse. The center’s programs and services include family advocacy, forensic interviews, prevention education, therapy and medical exams. All services are free for children and their families. 

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