Experts offer advice as charges laid in Burnaby for parent's 'worst nightmare'
VANCOUVER -- Crown counsel has laid five charges against a Burnaby man in a disturbing case where a girl claims the man lured her online then sexually assaulted her, prompting local educators to caution against knee-jerk reactions from parents.
Burnaby Mounties announced the charges Tuesday, proving the warnings of other police agencies that children are more at risk of online luring as they spend more time on social media channels during the pandemic were well-founded.
But a prominent media literacy educator who’s spoken to thousands of children and parents about safe and responsible online usage is urging parents not to overreact to the case.
“It is tantamount to a parent's worst nightmare but realistically, when we look at these stories, they get some large press attention but they're not as frequent as maybe parents who think the internet is a horrible thing would like to believe," said Jesse Miller.
He says while some parents may be tempted to take away children's devices or install spyware to protect them from predators, the best defence against unwanted encounters, and even victimization, is an open dialogue.
"Look at what your children do online, be open to talk to them," Miller said. "Be open about what you do online as well and find that middle ground where if you're not the safest place for them to talk to about these issues and themes, another trusted adult the kid feels safer with might be a better person."
It doesn’t have to be an awkward conversation for either side if parents discuss it as a matter of fact part of modern life, he added.
Miller says red flags for parents can come in the form of sudden changes in online behaviour: unexplained secrecy or hiding screens, sudden avoidance of social media or interactions, or an increase in time spent online.
Sexual exploitation educator Tiana Sharifi also cautions the stereotype of an online predator being an outwardly creepy older man out to find a child to victimize is inaccurate and can lead to dangerous misconceptions.
"A lot of these predators pretend to be, or are, late teens to about mid-20s, even all the way up to 30," she said. "You have someone asking you very personal questions right off the bat, trying to know more sexual information about you, your past relationships, and trying to meet up with you in person or trying to engage in some sort of video."
In those encounters, Sharifi said youths should end the conversation immediately but hold onto screenshots or chat logs in case investigators need them later.
"Whether it's a dating app or social media app, kids need to know that a real online friend doesn't ask for naked photos or videos, doesn't know information about you before you've said it, is not in a rush to meet up with you in person right away, doesn't want to have only private conversations with you where they're not commenting publicly on those platforms but having private messages,” said Sharifi, who has a series of online resources to help kids and teens figure out how to navigate everything from peer pressure to sexting to online bullying.
She emphasizes that the moment someone tries to coerce you into sending nude photos or video -- or threatens you based on material you’ve already sent – it's time to talk to an adult and go to police for a sextortion investigation. But that doesn’t mean complainants are in any kind of trouble themselves.
“The number one weapon these predators use and count on is shame,” said Sharifi. “So if we eliminate that from the equation, that you've done nothing wrong, that's really important."