The online world is a huge part of our daily life. People interact online many times a day with friends, family and sometimes strangers. While most of these interactions are positive, sometimes the Internet can lead to negative interactions with others. Negative online interactions fall into two main categories: exploitation and cyberbullying. This fact sheet deals mainly with exploitative online interactions; for more information on cyberbullying, read our cyberbullying fact sheet.
At times, interacting online can bring you into contact with people who want to exploit you. While not everyone online is like this, there are certain people who go online in an attempt to manipulate or abuse young people. It is important to note that when talking about “Internet child exploitation”, the word “child” refers to anyone under the age of 18. Contrary to popular belief, teenagers (and not young children) are the most common victims of manipulation and abuse online (Be Web Aware). The people being exploitive can even be teenagers or young adults; they are not always the stereotypical older men.
Some common activities that can bring you into contact with people who want to exploit you are:
- Online chatting
- Photo sharing
- Online gaming
- Social networking websites
How do people who want to exploit you online operate?
Each one may operate differently, but most are likely to be found wherever potential victims are located: chat rooms, instant messaging program, email, social networking sites and discussion boards. They may also visit online support groups in order to seek out vulnerable young people.
Those who want to exploit you may try to win you over by giving you lots of attention, compliments or gifts. They are often patient and willing to work at gaining your trust for weeks or even months. Others may use threats or claim that they are in an emergency in order to convince you to cooperate. Some are teenagers and others may actually pose as teenagers online and may develop a “friendship” with the goal of meeting a youth for a sexual purpose. While some will slowly and gradually introduce sexual content into conversations, others work faster, introducing sexual content very quickly (Be Web Aware).
Chatting online using instant messaging programs or chat rooms has many benefits:
- You can stay connected with friends from school or those who have moved away.
- You can chat while browsing the web.
- You have the opportunity to make new friends from all over the world.
- Chat programs can be used to work with others on school projects or to transfer files.
However, when chatting, you may encounter people who could try to take advantage of you. Some issues that may come up when chatting online are:
- It’s harder to determine who you should and shouldn’t talk to online. People can lie about their age, sex, location and intentions.
- You can be pressured to share information you do not want to and/or others can send you inappropriate messages, photos or videos.
- You can become the victim of harassment, verbal abuse and/or cyberbullying.
Photo sharing is a great way to let friends and family know what’s going on in your life. Photos can be shared through instant messaging programs, chat rooms, social networking sites, photo sharing sites, email and a variety of other programs.
However, photo sharing can raise some issues:
- Once you send a photo, it’s out of your control. A private photo that you send in to a boyfriend or girlfriend can easily be distributed to everyone on his or her contact list. And once it’s online, it can be downloaded and saved by anyone in the world.
- Photos can be manipulated to make it look like you are in a compromising situation.
- Once you post a photo online, anyone can see it. Some pictures can get you in trouble with your parents or even with the police. Keep this in mind when posting photos of your friends as well – always get their permission before posting anything.
Like photo sharing, webcams are a great way to stay in touch over long distances. But webcams can also pose hidden dangers:
- Be careful about using a webcam, especially with people you only know through the Internet. Some people search for children and teens willing to model sexy clothes or act out scenarios in front of a live camera.
- Don’t believe people if they claim that it’s just a way to get a start in modeling or show business – legitimate businesses do not operate like this.
- Once your webcam broadcasts a video, it can be captured by the other person’s computer and saved for later viewing, posted to a website or copied to a CD and distributed.
- Webcams can be controlled remotely. Even if you think your webcam is off, if someone has hacked into your computer, he or she can use it to film you without your knowledge (consider covering your webcam with a towel or turn it toward a wall when you are not using it).
Sexting refers to sending photos, videos or messages that are sexual in nature by cell phone or the Internet. They can be sent to boyfriends/girlfriends, individuals the sender wants to date, individuals the sender met online or anyone else. Sexting carries the same risks as photo sharing and webcam use: once someone has sent a photo, video or message of him or herself, it is out of his or her control. There is no way to limit who the photos or videos are passed on to or who will see them. The photos, videos and messages can also be saved for later viewing, published to a website, or saved to a CD and distributed. In other words, once a photo is online, it is potentially online forever.
Playing online games is a great way to pass the time and to make new friends. Online games have evolved very quickly and in many games you can now talk to the other players live. This development makes it even easier for those who wish to exploit you to gain personal information: you may be more likely to reveal this information when talking to other gamers because you feel like you know the person you’re talking to. The bottom line is that you have no way of knowing who they really are or what their true intentions are.
Social Networking Sites
Social networking sites let you stay in touch with friends and family all over the world and update them on your life. With message boards, photos, video applications and more, these sites are getting more and more complex. However, it’s easy for people to find out all kinds of information about you if you post it on your profile, and some people may use this information to exploit you. For more information on how to create a safe online profile, visit our fact sheet on constructing an online profile for social networking sites.
How to stay safe when interacting online
- Never give out any personal information, such as your address, phone number, password or photograph. It is surprisingly easy for a stranger to track you down with even the smallest amount of information.
- Use impersonal nicknames that do not give away any identifying information in chat programs and other sites. For example, something like “brown_eyed_girl_12” isn’t a safe name because it tells people that there’s a good chance you’re a 12 year-old girl with brown eyes.
- Think about your online reputation – what you say and do online can reveal a lot about you and can have an impact on how others view you. Acting before you think may give others the wrong impression or attract unwanted attention.
- If you’re talking to people you don’t know offline (for example, someone you only know through an online game), use a voice-mask so others don’t know your age or gender.
- Don’t believe everything you’re told. Those who want to exploit you will often pass themselves off as other teenagers, even using photos of real teenagers to support their lies. Always remember that you have no way of knowing who is telling the truth on the Internet. Even if they really are teenagers, they may still not have the best intentions.
- Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- If you make an appointment to meet in person with someone you have met on the Internet, make sure you have the permission of your parents or another adult. Also make sure the meeting place is a public place and other people are with you.
- If you do share photos or video of yourself, be aware that anything you broadcast can never be taken back. Once it’s out there, it’s there for the whole world – including your parents and future employers – to see.
- If you use a webcam, be sure that you actually unplug the webcam when you’re not using it. If it’s built in to your computer, at least cover it up if you can’t unplug it separately. Don’t use a webcam when you visit chat rooms or instant messaging programs: live video can be captured by other participants, which means you lose control over where your image ends up.
- If you have video files on your computer, don’t download file sharing software on your computer. Other users may be able to capture those files and then repost or distribute them without your knowledge.
- Don’t let other people – including your friends – convince you to do something you’re uncomfortable with. They’re not the ones who have to deal with the consequences.
- Talk to your parents about what you do online and invite them to surf the Internet with you. If you have concerns about things you see on the Internet or think someone else might be in trouble, tell an adult you trust. Don’t be intimidated by others into keeping quiet if you see a problem.
If someone makes you feel uncomfortable online
- Save any inappropriate messages, photos or videos as evidence. Block the person from contacting you and leave the chat room, gaming site, or whatever online activity you are doing.
- Tell an adult you trust if someone makes you feel uncomfortable.
- You should report it to an adult, the police and/or Cybertip if:
- Anyone you don’t know in real life asks for your personal information, photos or videos.
- A person or company you don’t know sends or posts inappropriate content or obscene material.
- You receive a URL that directs you to a site containing inappropriate material instead of what you were looking for.
- Anyone sends you photos or videos containing obscene content of individuals 18 and younger (because the possession, manufacturing or distribution of child pornography is illegal).
- Anyone asks you to meet them in person for sexual activities (Netsmartz).
The use of the Internet to entice or persuade youth (anyone under the age of 18) to meet for sexual acts or to help arrange such a meeting is a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada. There can also be serious consequences if you send photos or videos of someone who is under the age of 18 and the photo/video is of a sexual nature, even if you know the individual. For example, if you pass on a sexual photo/video from your boyfriend or girlfriend who is under 18 years of age, it could be considered distribution of child pornography and may result in criminal charges.
When interacting with others online, you can help make sure that your interactions are positive by abiding by the common rules of “netiquette” (online etiquette):
- Don’t say anything online that you would not repeat or say in person. Why should this be an issue? Because the anonymity of the Internet may lead some people to say things on the Internet that are inappropriate, rude or embarrassing. This can have offline consequences, such as losing friends.
- Never deceive someone for a malicious purpose. This means that you should not pretend to be someone else, or lie to a person online, when your intentions for doing so are not well-intended.
- You should always keep in mind that everything you write online can potentially be viewed by anyone. Some people tend to forget this and say things that they shouldn’t say or that they would not want others to see.
- Just like offline, you should respect someone’s right to end a conversation with you. Not respecting the other person’s wishes is a type of harassment and is disrespectful.