This month the national Sexual Assault Awareness campaign, “Building Safe Online Spaces Together,” highlights the impact of online sexual abuse. Not only is there a high rate of violence among dating teenagers as discussed in our March e-newsletter, but abusive online experiences and sexual violence are also prevalent. Studies show that 25% of dating teens report having been victimized online by their partners and 33% of those victims said they were also sexually coerced during online interactions. Because teenagers spend a large amount of time online, providers can benefit from learning more about these risks and how to best support their patients should they have encountered this type of abuse.
According to the CDC, teenagers increased online presence puts them at a higher risk for cyber sexual exploitation and/or harassment. It is important to pay attention to behavioral changes and to ensure that caring adults have open communication with young people to help them stay safe. Healthcare providers can support parents by alerting them to potential online risks and providing relevant resources (see below).
Some effective strategies to help keep minors safe online:
- Pay attention to signs of distress among teenagers who may have experienced cyberbullying. For example, teenagers may use their device less frequently and become withdrawn and depressed (Unicef Guidelines, 2020)
- Discuss with parents and caregivers how to set boundaries on when, where, and for how long their children can access the internet. Ensure they have downloaded the latest software updates and antivirus software (Unicef Guidelines, 2020).
- Educate parents and teens that in addition to being more vulnerable to cyberbullying and abuse online, problematic social media use is positively correlated with a higher frequency of psychosomatic complaints and other negative health indicators (Paakkari et al., 2021).
Also, telehealth providers can increase emotional safety and engagement with their patients by creating trauma-informed online spaces. A trauma-informed approach to online space considers a person’s experiences with trauma and how they may react to it.
Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault is a not-for-profit corporation of 30 community-based sexual assault crisis centers. To get more information about local resources or crisis centers in your area, please call 217-753-4117 or visit their website.
RAINN is a not-for-profit, anti-sexual assault organization that provides resources, specifically 24/7 confidential support with the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673).
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) provides research and tools for anti-sexual assault advocates, survivors, and families. NSVRC also organizes the Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign and events.
Common Sense Media is a nonprofit organization that ensures digital well-being for children by providing families with trustworthy information about technology and entertainment. They offer helpful videos and curriculum to facilitate parents’ conversations with their children about safe online practices.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (February 2022). COVID-19 Parental Resources Kit – Adolescence. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/stress-coping/parental-resources/adolescence/
Paakkari L, Tynjälä J, Lahti H, Ojala K, Lyyra N (2021). Problematic Social Media Use and Health among Adolescents. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health; 18(4):1885. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18041885
Unicef & WHO. (April 2020). Covid-19 and its implications for protecting children online. Unicef. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.unicef.org/media/67396/file/COVID-19%20and%20Its%20Implications%20for%20Protecting%20Children%20Online.pdf