Warning Signs a Young Person May be the Target of Sexual Abuse Online

We already know how difficult it is for children to talk about experiencing sexual harm or abuse, whether by an adult or by another child. When sexually abusive behavior occurs online, some children may not even realize they are being abused or exploited; and those who do still may not tell anyone, especially if they have broken a safety rule or believe their social media or internet privileges may be taken away. It’s critical that kids know that even if they broke a rule they can talk about something uncomfortable, confusing or scary that might be happening to them online. Talk frequently and honestly with your kids about experiences they may be having on social media and the internet, and learn the warning signs in children who may be at-risk.

Some of these warning sign behaviors may be part of the “normal” growing up process or caused by other factors in a child’s life, but by recognizing these warning signs, you can act early to protect your child. If you are worried, recognize that your child may be frightened, too. Talk to someone you trust, or seek the support of a professional.

What you can do if you see warning signs

It’s important to be aware of both the rewards and the risks for young people online. Understanding how social media and the internet works and what creates vulnerabilities for children and youth can help adults to take a proactive approach to online safety.  Please see our tip sheet on Keeping Children and Youth Safe Online for more information about prevention. 

If you begin to notice warning signs in a youth and you are concerned that they are being sexually abused or exploited online, it’s important to talk with them about your concerns. Young people who have been the victims of online exploitation often have a sense of shame and guilt, and feel responsible for what has happened, which makes it very difficult for them to tell anyone about it. It is important to give our children a clear message that it’s OK to tell, even if they feel they have done something wrong. 

Establish a Family Safety Plan that includes boundaries and safety measures for social media and internet use as well. Engage in ongoing conversations with children and youth about online safety and provide them with the information and resources they need to explore the vast world of the internet safely.

Signs that a child or young person may be the target of sexual abuse online include:

Isolating themselves

When a young person is being targeted or exploited online, you may notice that they are increasingly isolating themselves and perhaps becoming more secretive. Developing a need for more privacy is normal for youth, but when it is paired with strong emotional reactions, this could indicate that further information is needed. Pay attention to youth who:

  • Frequently shut the door when using technology or hide the screen when someone enters the room.
  • Spend increasing amounts of time accessing digital media.
  • Share less information about their interactions or activities online in general.
  • Often stay up late, well into the night on their devices in a way that they had not in the past.
  • Become possessive over their phone or other devices and become agitated, concerned, or fearful if someone else picks it up or wants to look at it.

Social changes

There are also changes in a young person’s social life to be aware of that could indicate that they might be experiencing exploitation online. It is natural for youth to seek independence from their caregivers and to spend increasing amounts of time with their peers. But when these social changes begin to interfere negatively with their daily life or create unsafe situations, then it would indicate that something deeper could be going on. Notice youth who:

  • Talk vaguely about a ‘new friend’ but don’t offer any further information.
  • Spend more time talking with this new ‘friend’ but doing so in a secretive way, different from how they might behave with other friends. 
  • Leave the home for longer periods of time with little to no explanation about where they are going.
  • Spend more time talking with ‘friends’ through social media or the internet, and no longer hanging out with their larger friend group as frequently.
  • Miss increasing amounts of school in order to be able to talk with their ‘friend’, canceling plans, or not wanting to attend previously enjoyed after-school activities (i.e. sports, arts, clubs, etc…).
  • Receive ‘gifts’ but will not share where they got it from or who gave it to them, such as jewelry, new electronic devices, clothing, or even digital currency. 

Emotional changes

A young person may also start showing noticeable changes in their mood or personality. It’s important to note that these emotional changes may come up for a variety of reasons and may not be related to online exploitation. However, any major changes in mood or personality indicate that a child needs further support - no matter what it is they might be dealing with. These changes can include:

  • Outbursts of anger or irritation.
  • Engaging in self-harming behaviors or other risk-taking behavior, such as the use of drugs or alcohol which can all act as coping tools for emotional pain.
  • Unexplained sadness, fear or anxiety, and low self esteem.
  • Noticeable changes in eating or sleeping habits.
  • Regressive behaviors like bed wetting, or sucking their thumb. 

Risk factors

Those who target young people for sexual exploitation online are often looking for a child who appears more vulnerable, perhaps has difficulty making friends or is experiencing loss or other trauma in their life. For example, a child who recently lost a parent may be looking for someone they can find comfort in. This need for connection might cause them to ignore warning signs or ignore family safety rules, and also share personal details that could increase their risk and act as a beacon for someone who is looking to take advantage. Some of these vulnerabilities that cause increased risk include:

  • Recent grief and loss
  • Family disruption, such as involvement in the foster care system
  • Lack of permanent and dependable housing
  • Developmental, intellectual, or physical disability
  • Experiencing abuse in the past
  • Isolation, lack of peer connection, or emotional support
  • Questions about sexual identity and/or identifies as LGBTQIA+
  • No safe outlet to explore sex and sexuality
  • Lack of information about healthy sexuality development and relationships 

By staying involved in youth’s use of social media and the internet, caring adults can help online experiences be safe ones.