Local advocates are urging parents to closely monitor their children’s online activities during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past while, Stephanie Hadley, executive director of the Stettler-based Association of Communities Against Abuse, said there has been an increase in reported online issues with some youth.
“Initially when the COVID pandemic started, we closed our office to the public and we had little or no calls coming in as in-takes,” he explained.
“There was a lull. We had anticipated there would be an increase, or a number of people seeking service later on because we also know that people are isolated and there is a higher risk for both domestic and sexual violence in the home. So we were anticipating that. What we were not anticipating was to see a number of cases coming our way that involved children and online device issues.”
Hadley said there have been incidents where youth have been visiting a particular web site or app, and they encounter someone who is looking to exploit them in some way.
“Maybe they are asking for pictures or wanting to video-chat – things like that,” she said.
“Also, there have been situations of child-luring where maybe a predator is looking to gather information about a child to perhaps meet them or exploit them in some way.”
Hadley said in some cases, devices have also been signed out from school divisions. While those devices are being used in school, there are several safety parameters in place, she said.
Once those devices leave the school grounds, those safety parameters aren’t necessarily still there.
“From what I’ve heard from parents is that they feel pretty secure with the devices coming out of the schools because they think those safeguards are on the device.”
That in turn leads to some parents perhaps not monitoring their kids as closely when it comes to their online time.
“It wasn’t on my radar until we started hearing about it. I wondered if it was also a problem elsewhere and it sure sounds like it is.”
She had received a few calls locally, and then when she reached out to other sexual assault centre managers they had indicated they had also received calls of concern.
Hadley also pointed out that May is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
“We are going to try and put out more information for parents and do some videos on our Facebook and Instagram to educate people about what they can do to protect kids,” she explained.
“It’s probably the most pressing issue that we are seeing right now. We are looking to really support parents and children so that they can be safer when they are using devices and going online,” she said.
“We’ve already, in the past, offered a parent workshop and have incorporated some of that online safety and device use into our public education. But of course schools are closed right now, so we aren’t able to deliver programs in person.
“So what we are looking at doing is putting out information and sharing links to resources that are available so that parents can learn more about it and find ways to protect their children and monitor the activities – maybe change settings and have good conversations about what risks are out there,” she said.
“People can call us or email us (403-742-3558 or firstname.lastname@example.org) and we can provide one-on-one support to parents and families but we can also connect them with resources and information.”
Meanwhile, in terms of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Province has noted that conversations around the facts about sexual violence are imperative to supporting survivors, educating youth, and working towards the safety and well-being of society.
Hadley said that locally, workshop planning is in the works along with greater online information about the issues.
“I think it’s important for people to know that we are here serving the communities of East Central Alberta and we can provide information, therapy and support services. People just have to call.
Officials with the Province noted that according to the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services, 45 per cent of Albertans have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
“Sexual Violence Awareness Month will focus on the actions being taken to prevent this violence, the resources and supports available to support survivors, and shine a light on the amazing organizations and staff across the province that continue to provide services to bring support and healing to those impacted by sexual violence,” said Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women Leela Sharon Aheer.
“I encourage anyone who needs support to reach out to the Alberta One Line for Sexual violence, the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services or local sexual assault centres across the province. Information about other resources available can be found on alberta.ca.”