The headlines sent shockwaves through parents across the country. Phrases like “lurking pedophiles” make parents’ hearts race, mainly when applied to the ubiquitous video site YouTube.
A video by a former YouTube content creator describes how YouTube’s algorithms can quickly fill someone’s watch list with sexually suggestive videos of children. How sexually suggestive are these videos? According to the pedophiles who left comments on them, very suggestive. And that is perhaps the most upsetting detail of these revelations: that people who are sexually attracted to children are viewing these videos, commenting on them, timestamping the moments in them that the children in question look the “sexiest,” and even sharing child pornography in these comments.
No parent wants to think about someone getting sexual gratification by watching a video of their child. And now that millions know this has been happening on YouTube, significant advertisers are pulling their ads, and YouTube is scrambling to fix its algorithms and commenting policies. And while parents are aghast, they don’t realize that YouTube is only a symptom of a larger problem.
When a baby is born, and new parents are deluged with advice on car seats and nursing, no one asks, “What’s your plan to protect this baby from being sexually abused? Do you have one? If not, here’s some literature with ideas”. No one in the child’s extended family will likely ask for or offer helpful advice. Neither are any educators, coaches, medical providers, carers, or sundry others parents rely on for their child’s first 18 years. Most parents agree that protecting children from sexual abuse is essential, but most know little about how to protect them.
Here are some basic facts all parents should know about child sexual abuse:
It is very common. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study found that slightly over 20% of adults born in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s experienced child sexual abuse. The study has been replicated many times over the last 20 years in younger demographics, and that same percentage is found.
Sexual attraction to children is common. A recent study found 10% of men and 4% of women said they would have sex with a child if they thought they could get away with it. We don’t know precisely what this means; we don’t know what percentage of people attracted to children will abuse them, and we don’t know what percentage of children who are sexually abused are abused by someone who would answer that question with a “no.” Another indicator of how common sexual attraction to children is can be found by the amount of child pornography known to the authorities; in three years, over 20 million ISP addresses engaging in peer-to-peer file sharing of child pornography were identified.
It takes survivors of sexual abuse, on average, about 21 years to disclose abuse.* Some children disclose while they are children, but most don’t. This makes prosecution tricky and is one of the reasons why only about 10% of sex offenders see a day behind bars.**
All of those facts paint a very scary picture about child sexual abuse in the United States. It also tells us that nothing about the recent YouTube debacle is surprising. At any given moment, there are a lot of pedophiles on our streets, online, and everywhere else, and they are watching children, online and otherwise. That’s a really scary thought, but any concrete action we take to protect children, as individuals or communities, needs to start from that belief.
So what can we do to protect children? The first step is to acknowledge that all of them are at risk. There is no title someone can have, no position they can hold, no quality they can possess that means they will not sexually abuse a child. And we need to accept the unpleasant statistical facts that there is probably at least one in our family, one in our circle of friends, one on our block, and one in every institution that your child spends time in.
The golden standard for protecting our children would be to ensure they spend their entire childhoods without one-child, one-adult situations behind closed doors. That’s a tall order for any parent. But we can insist that any and all daycares, schools, religious institutions, after school facilities, doctors’ offices and youth sports facilities have strict child abuse prevention policies that prohibit one-child, one-adult situations behind closed doors. You can tell your family, friends and babysitters that you want one-child, one-adult situations kept to a bare minimum.
Here are some other important tips:
Learn as much as you can about the way sex offenders operate. We’re going to be bringing you much more information about that in the coming weeks and months.
Forbid secrets. Do not ask your child to keep secrets, and make sure your family and any caregivers your child has understand why that’s important. If your child isn’t used to keeping innocuous secrets, hopefully they’ll be less comfortable keeping secrets about sexual abuse or the grooming that precedes it.
Encourage boundaries. Don’t force children to hug or kiss people they don’t want to hug or kiss. Support their decisions, and let them know they are in charge of who touches them.
Teach anatomy. Teaching kids the proper names for their genitals serves several functions. First, if your child is ever around someone trying to sexualize them by showing them pornography or by exposing themselves to your child, your child will at least have words to describe what is happening to them. And more importantly, it is telling them that sexuality isn’t a taboo that cannot be spoken of in your house.
Teach life. Child sexual abuse is a very common reality. There are stories in the news often. Notifications are sent to parents about incidents in a school, church, daycare, etc regularly. All of us know abuse survivors. There is no reason to hide this from children. If children think child sexual abuse is so horrible their family can’t talk about it in conversation, they’re much less likely to talk about it if the stakes are higher.
So, what about YouTube? Should parents forbid their children from posting videos to it? From watching it? Neither of those are necessary. What is necessary is for parents to understand that any photos of their kids that they share, whether it’s only among their family and friends or whether it’s with millions of strangers, are likely to sexually arouse someone. They also need to know that most of these people don’t pose much of a risk unless they know your child face-to-face. And they must understand that sex offenders inhabit their child’s community, whether or not they see pictures and videos of your child. They need to understand that there is a lot of danger in this world, but there is also a lot that they can do to protect their kids.
* “Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse Among Male Survivors” by Scott D. Easton, December of 2013 Clinical Social Work Journal”
** Robert Baker of the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board, Massachusetts Office of Public Safety. 2008.
Discover your ACE score and unlock a new understanding of your life. Take the test and gain insights into how your early experiences shape your well-being. Don't let your past define you – empower yourself with knowledge.
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.