Representatives from the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Academy, Army Criminal Investigation Division and the Army Community Service Family Advocacy Program discussed consent and communication about the risks associated with children using social media during a presentation Nov. 10 in Arnold Conference Room at the Lewis and Clark Center.
SHARP Academy Instructor and Writer Marvin Lockett II conducted the first presentation, “Discussing Content and Health Boundaries with Children,” in which he clarified the definition of consent, the importance of bodily autonomy or body boundaries that should be respected by others and how to maintain open communication with children.
Lockett began by asking the audience about their own habits and discomforts — such as forcing hugging on another or being the recipient of forced affection — to build examples of consent that might have informed early definitions of the concept for their children. He explained that it's important to teach children that it's OK to say yes or no to interactions depending on the level of their comfort, and it's equally important to accept their choices and boundaries.
“If we’re pushing or pressuring them, we’re taking that (ability to consent) away from them,” Lockett said.
Lockett said it's important to discuss boundaries openly, but parents should consider age-appropriate conversations and lessons specific to their child by finding out what their child already knows.
“Every kid is not ready for every conversation we’re going to have when it comes to consent and boundaries.”
He said parents need to understand that children will learn from other sources, but risk prevention and intervention start at home. Lockett encouraged parents to teach consent and boundaries, teach anatomically correct terms for body parts, and correct negative behaviors before they develop in adolescence and adulthood.
He explained by allowing children to express their level of comfort and acting on it appropriately, parents can reinforce positive understandings of consent and create an environment for children to learn with respect to others. Creating channels of open communication, he said, also allows parents to be involved in social changes in their children’s lives more often, which may offer a better picture of their perception of the world.
“They need to hear that they are supported 100 percent, regardless of what they say to you. And don’t be judgmental because you're going to hear things that might not be a part of your norms, values and beliefs, especially in the current times.”
CID Investigator Robert Camden and CID Special Agent Patrick O’Connell gave the second presentation, “Potential Hazards and Warning Signs of Social media on Youth,” and offered examples of hazards such as drugs, school violence threats, cyberbullying, sextortion and child sexual abuse material online, and how parents can navigate concerns.
Camden and O’Connell said social media, or apps and websites used to share ideas within a network or connect with others, can be used negatively, often under the guise of anonymity. Bad actors, they said, also see it as an opportunity to target children.
Camden said illicit drugs have been more frequently marketed and sold online through social media over the past few years. Studies found it takes around three minutes to find a full list of drugs available for purchase, and around 25 percent of teenagers have observed illegal drugs advertised online.
O'Connell said platforms with temporary messages, such as Snapchat, are most popular for drug distribution. He said platforms have dedicated analysis functions to flag reports and remove accounts associated with narcotics, but drug dealers often evade their tactics.
Camden said it's important to discuss the presence of drugs online, the consequences associated with drug use and family rules against narcotics and prescription drug use to prevent concerning behavior. He encouraged parents to use the maximum privacy settings on their children's accounts and consider third-party app interventions such as the Bark parental control app.
O’Connell shared that about a third of school violence threats, especially shooting and bomb threats, appeared on social media first. He encouraged parents to discuss school violence threats with their children as a means for emergency prevention.
O’Connell said many violent events could have been prevented if authorities learned of issues online first and threats should be reported by students or parents if a concern arises.
Cyberbullying and cyber self-harm are other online threats for children. Camden said 40 percent of fourth- and fifth-graders have experienced some form of cyberbullying, and rates increase consistently each year. He said the short-term and long-term effects can be serious as children who experience cyberbullying are twice as likely to attempt suicide. Cyber self-harm is the act of posting self-degrading content that may receive attention in the form of likes, comments or shares that creates insecurity, which also has negative mental health effects. He said to engage and offer children a safe environment and mental health care.
Camden and O’Connell said sextortion and the sexual exploitation of children for child sexual abuse material (CSAM) is also an increasingly common concern. Sextortion is the act of blackmailing an individual with sexual content to meet a demand such as money or other sexual imagery. Perpetrators often target children with fake profiles through gaming platforms or other online networks. Sextortion affects male and female children of all ages, and victims sometimes turn to suicide. Parents can ask children to avoid speaking to strangers or moving conversations off-platform, never send compromising images and never open attachments from strangers. Parents can also report concerns to the cyber tip line.
O’Connell said CSAM is being spread globally through third-party networks, and parents should look into the laws associated with the age of consent and culpability in each state to educate children on the consequences associated with sexting or other potentially compromising situations. For free resources, and ways to start the conversation, visit https://www.missingkids.org/netsmartz/resources.
FAP program manager Kristin Minner discussed the “Continuum of Sexual Behavior in Children.”
Minner shared that children demonstrate sexual behavior proportional to their age and developmental experiences. Normative behavior, cautionary behavior and problematic behavior exist on a continuum; however, problematic sexual behavior in children and youth (PSYB-CY) is the most uncommon and concerning because it may cause harm to the child and/or others. Minner said PSYB-CY behavior can be avoided with redirection in the cautionary phase, but warning signs must be understood for proper intervention.
She encouraged parents to educate themselves on typical sexual behaviors for their children’s age and development, speak with children about appropriate friendships and physical and verbal interactions, and to call FAP with suspicion of PSYB-CY at 913-864-2822/2800. FAP is now designated by the Department of Defense to evaluate and investigate PSYB-CY for an appropriate response.
“We’re really encouraging the schools, Child and Youth Services, and everyone on the installation to be mindful of these cases and just call — it's a community-coordinated response,” Minner said.