In the past year, an alarming 40 per cent increase involving the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children and youth under age 18 has taken place, according to Children of the Street Society executive director Diane Sowden.
Sowden’s organization, which educates, advocates and supports prevention programs for exploited youth, and PLEA Community Services, a volunteer outreach program for youth who are being sexually exploited, will hold a public workshop on Tuesday, March 28, at Brooks Secondary School.
Some youth have been trading sexual activity online and kids know it is going on, said Sowden.
“They all are very aware of situations where someone has sent a nude or partially nude picture to their friend or someone else online who they know or don’t know,” said Sowden. “They don’t understand the consequences of what can happen to that image.”
Apps are the new playground for predators and many parents have little control over what their children are doing online due to their own lack of knowledge about chat apps or online teenager language, said Sowden.
“My generation, we could talk to our kids about predators at the playground or the park and we didn’t blame the victim ever,” said Sowden, “but as soon as a young person is online we have this tendency to blame the victim and say, ‘You should have known better.’”
Sowden knows the personal cost of sexual exploitation. Her own 13-year-old child was lost to human trafficking on the Lower Mainland.
“My daughter was adopted at the age of eight,” she said. “She came from a very small community and would be called a high-risk youth; she was adopted and had some background of sexual abuse. She met someone in our community who took advantage of the situation. That can happen in any community.”
In small communities such as Powell River, Sowden said sexual exploitation not only happens online, but also at house parties, where sexual favours are exchanged in order to be included in a peer group or in trade for drugs and alcohol.
Youth can be manipulated and meet people online who they make immediate friendships with, said PLEA program manager Camila Jimenez.
“In small communities, we often hear that there are transient people who travel in and out of that community,” said Jimenez.
According to Jimenez, predators make contact with youth and often offer drugs, alcohol and free rides to big centres such as Vancouver.
“They often use those strategies to lure a younger youth into a sexual exploitation,” she added.
Devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets make the problem worse and are responsible for the rise in sexual exploitation because almost every kid has one.
In 2013, a major study conducted by Canadian digital and media literacy organization MediaSmarts of online experiences for more than 5,000 youth across Canada found that 99 per cent of the students surveyed, from grade four through 11, had internet access outside of school.
In aboriginal communities on a provincial level, 33 to 50 per cent of all youth are sexually exploited, according to Sowden.
Sowden said youth generally do not talk to their parents, teachers or any source. They do, however, talk to their peers and strangers about sexual exploitation online, she added.
“Neither one of them has the knowledge or their best interests in place,” said Sowden.
Many youth do not open up to people who do possess that knowledge or have their best interest in mind, she added.
“It’s because, first of all, they’re afraid to lose their devices,” she said. “That’s number one; that’s their lifeline.”
Another reason is children may not think their parents are knowledgeable about the technology and, according to Sowden, for many, that is true.