How do people sexually exploit children and youth online?

There are several ways that a person might sexually exploit a child or youth online. 

A note about youth internet use 

Technology is woven into our everyday lives, and it is necessary in many ways even for young children. Young people are spending more time than ever before using devices, and so it is important to understand the risks of connecting with others behind a screen or through a device and to identify what makes a child vulnerable online. 

It may seem like the best solution is to restrict or remove access to digital media, but this can actually increase the risk of harm. A youth may then become more secretive about their digital media use, and they therefore may not reach out when something concerning or harmful happens. Instead, it’s crucial that children and youth have the tools and the education to navigate social media, the internet, and other digital media safely. See our guide for Keeping Children and Youth Safe Online to find tips on preparing for internet safety. 

Types of Online Sexual Exploitation 

Child sexual abuse material (CSAM), formerly called child pornography.

Viewing, producing and/or distributing photographs and videos of sexual content including children is a type of child sexual abuse. This material is called child sexual abuse material (CSAM), once referred to as child pornography. It is illegal to create this material or share it with anyone, including young people.

Virtual enticement 

A young person may be asked to send photos or videos of themselves to a ‘friend’ that they might have met online. These photos and videos may then be sent to others and/or used to exploit that child. Alternatively, they may also be used as a threat or manipulation tool to get a young person to participate in sexual or illegal activities. 

Warning Signs (Grooming)

Some adults form ‘friendships’ with minors online with the intention of eventually meeting to sexually abuse them. The process of developing a relationship with a child with the intention of sexually abusing them is often called 'grooming', a series of warning signs in a person’s behaviors that can increase a child’s vulnerability and their risk of being sexually abused. 

Adults may offer a young person affection and attention through their ‘friendship,’ but also buy them gifts both virtually and in real life. They look to try and isolate a child from their support network and create a dependency so that they establish a sense of power and control over the child. This can often feel confusing for a young person as it may feel as if this person truly cares about them.  

The most likely places for such behavior to start include social media, messaging apps, and chat rooms – including on gaming devices. A youth may be encouraged to give personal details, to go off into a private chat, and also to use video chat. Although a relationship may be initiated in a chat room or social networking site, they can continue through text, email, or through the use of other apps. 

Virtual sex

Using the internet or social media to engage in sexual activity is commonly referred to as “virtual sex” or “sexting.” This might look like encouraging children or teens to hold sexual conversations in which they are instructed to engage in, talk about, or show sexual behavior. It may also include encouraging youth to send sexually explicit pictures of themselves which is considered child sexual abuse material (CSAM). 

The most common places for an adult to start targeting and exploiting a minor for these purposes are chat rooms and messaging apps - this would also include gaming sites and video sharing sites as well. Such behavior takes place virtually, without physical contact between the child and the person seeking to exploit them. 

Despite the lack of physical contact, it is still considered abusive behavior for an adult to be engaging with a minor in this way. And children can be frightened and traumatized by these interactions.

Teens crossing the line with peers

It is also important to recognize the risk of youth crossing boundaries with other youth online. Youth can also face legal consequences for child sexual abuse material despite their own status as a minor. 

This includes sending nude or sexually explicit images and videos to peers, often called sexting. Even if meant to be shared between other young people, it is illegal for anyone to possess, distribute, or manufacture sexual content involving anyone younger than 18. Even minors found distributing or possessing such images can and have faced legal consequences. 

There can be a great deal of pressure for a young person to conform to social norms by engaging in sexting, and they may face coercion or manipulation if they go against the status quo. It is important that youth know that they have the ability to say NO to anything that makes them uncomfortable or is unsafe. They should also be informed about the risks of sexting so that they have the language to make safe decisions and navigate this in their own peer group.

Increasing safety online 

Although there are ways in which kids are vulnerable online, there are proactive steps that parents, caregivers and other loving adults can take to increase safety. These resources offer some more guidance about online safety for children and youth.