What the children told us, while we talked to them about the good and the bad on the Internet

Every year, IC La Strada's Issues Affecting Children Program implements at least one comprehensive information campaign for children around the field of online safety. The communication actions are launched on the Online Safety Day, which has become an opportunity to plan multiple activities, which we implement during February or even more.

In 2021, we tried to get as close as possible to the children, teachers, and adults involved in children's education to talk to them about safety rules on the Internet. This processes took almost all of February and March.

The campaign brought 918 requests on the platform. Most messages came from children - 855, but counselors and teachers (30), relatives of children (14), and adults who were worried about the children they knew (19) also reached out.

At the end of this stage, we decided to draw some totals and say what we learned from the children and teenagers, what they know and what they would like to know about online safety.

The consultants who maintained the conversation with the young visitors of the platform throughout the campaign come to share the most critical observations in the behavior of children and adolescents in the virtual environment:

First of all, we are happy to discover more and more children and teenagers are aware that their actions in the virtual environment leave footprints, not only digital but also in their lives and that of the people they interact with in real life. 7 out of 10 children entered the portal in order to ask the consultants what they could do and how "not to end up in the situation as the girl from the ad." (video available in Romanian)

One of the questions that concerns teenagers in an online relationship refer to intimate content: "How do I proceed if my friend, asks me for nude photos?". About 4% of the reports reflected these concerns from the adolescents. Another 3% of counselings were made for children who face bullying online. Specialists have noted a new problem that children face, committed for revenge or to "compromise my reputation," as the children said.

Sexual blackmail remains one of the most painful forms of abuse affecting children at this time. As before, children are most often asked to send new sexual content, more explicit than those previously sent to the person with whom they were (or thought they were) in a relationship with. In addition to these forms of blackmail, SigurOnline consultants noted that a new form of the phenomenon known as sextortion is gaining ground. Children are asked for money in exchange for "silence", so that the abuser does not publish the child's intimate images.

A worrying trend, which we have noticed since the end of last year and which, was reconfirmed during the campaign, was the identification of a category of children, particularly vulnerable to risks of sexual abuse and exploitation. This regards the reports we received about minors who produce explicitly intimate content. The behaviors of these children are often voluntary, and, at first glance, the child exposes himself/serself this way to attract attention. More and more profiles of this kind are attracting the attention of other social network users. Both children and adults react differently to the intimate content produced by minors, from disapproval and harassment to encouragement, admiration, and rarely concern. However, the real reasons for a child's highly sexualized actions are much more complex and require special attention from the services responsible for protecting children's rights.

In total, in February-March, we have received 22 reports about cases of online sexual abuse. Only one patient was referred to law enforcement.

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