Stats obtained by CBC News show reports related to online child exploitation during the COVID-19 pandemic are on the rise in Manitoba.
Between March and mid-July, Manitoba RCMP have opened 113 new investigations — a 20 per cent increase compared to the same time period last year.
Sgt. Stephen Rear, director of the Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit with D Division RCMP in Manitoba, said his team has gone from receiving a handful of cases per week to, in recent months, upwards of a dozen cases a week.
He attributes the spike to more people — both predators and children — spending more time at home and online due to COVID-19.
“Predators are taking advantage of those kids,” said Rear. “A lot of times those kids are not being properly supervised or if they are being supervised, not to the degree that they should be because parents think even though the kids in the room with them that that’s enough.”
He said offenders are luring kids on just about any of the roughly 200 online platforms young people use to connect including popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Kik, Snapchat and TikTok.
Victims as young as 9
Victims in Manitoba have ranged in age from 9 to 17 years old, with the average age between 10 and 12, Rear said.
Boys and girls appear to be targeted equally, he added.
“We haven’t had any files where [predators] actually want to meet, physically meet,” he said. “They’re looking for images and videos of the kids engaged in sexual acts.”
No community in Manitoba is immune. His unit has investigated cases across the province — from the US border to Churchill to remote, fly-in First Nations, he said.
Once a complaint is received, the painstaking process begins to track down the accused, their IP address and eventually their location, which involves writing production orders and executing search warrants. The process can take months.
The unit of four full-time staff estimates about 40 arrests are made per year and at least half of all suspects annually are traced to a foreign country, Rear said.
While Manitoba RCMP work in tandem with other police forces, the investigations generally do not include reports in Winnipeg and Brandon, which have their own ICE unit’s.
The Winnipeg Police Service was not able to provide data on its caseload through the pandemic, but said the majority of reports are forwarded to them via Cybertip.ca, the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre (NCECC) and the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the United States.
Brandon Police Service has seen at least four reports related to online child exploitation since March, which is in line with previous statistics, Sgt. Mike Tosh told CBC News.
Trend across Canada
Stephen Sauer, director of Cybertip.ca, a national tipline to report the sexual exploitation of children, said Manitoba is a microcosm of what’s happening across Canada.
Over April, May and June, reports to Cybertip from youth who had been sexually exploited and reports of people trying to sexually abuse children increased by 81 per cent.
He agrees that the biggest factor is the unprecedented amount of time kids are spending online since school and other activities were largely shut down in response to the pandemic.
“Because of COVID-19 [young people] are seeking out different ways of having social interactions,” he said. “Offenders are seeing this as an opportunity.”
Sauer said predators are using a variety of tactics to target their victims, including platforms such as Omegle and Chatroulette which allows strangers to connect via live video or text.
“These often allow for individuals with a sexual interest to quickly engage with youth on a level that they would have never been able to before,” Sauer said.
Another technique predators will use, especially to target boys on video-streaming platforms, are what Sauer refers to as “bait videos”.
The offender will use a pre-recorded video of a similar-aged peer engaging in a sexual act and coerce the victim to participate while they record it, Sauer explained.
“Then they will either threaten to distribute it, threaten youth for money or for further imagery,” he said. “Or they’ll often share it amongst the offending community.”
Girls tend to be groomed over longer periods of time before the initial request is made for sexual images or videos, he added.
Sauer said the onus does not just fall on parents to keep kids safe — companies providing messaging and live-video services have an important responsibility as well.
He said there needs to be proper age verification and stricter moderation of content to ensure a safe space for kids to engage with each other online.
“They are advertising to these kids,” he said. “So they need to make sure they’re putting everything in place to make sure that they’re safe on these platforms.”
Keeping kids safe
Both Sauer and Rear say keeping communication lines open and talking to your kids about apps, privacy settings and risks early is key to keeping kids safe.
Parents also must know what their children are doing online, Rear said.
“Sometimes you can’t be their friend, you have to be the parent,” he said. “Look at their devices. Make sure the people they’re communicating with are appropriate. Do they know who they are in real life?”
Rear said if a child is being offered money, gifts or gift cards, that is an immediate red flag.
“If all of a sudden in their iTunes account has a large amount of money in it because someone’s giving them money,” Rear said. “It’s the little things like that, that begins a child becoming a victim.”
He also suggests parents review a device’s Internet history and take note if there are large gaps of history missing, which may indicate a child may be trying to conceal online activity from a parent.
Parents can also take measures to turn off internet access to children’s devices, especially at night, to prevent kids from logging on after they go to bed, he said.
Internet providers can walk through the steps to limit connectivity on any device in a home during certain times of day, he added.
Watching for signs of a change in behaviour or mental health is also important in recognizing whether a child is being preyed on.
If kids are being threatened, or blackmailed by a predator for money or more images, they can become depressed and withdrawn, Rear said.
He hopes the rise in cases will be an anomaly, tied to the pandemic.
In the meantime, he encourages parents and youth to report any suspicious activity to police or Cybertip — no matter how small it might seem.
“Sometimes it’s little things that will lead to an arrest of somebody,” he said. “If somebody is doing something to one child, they’re probably doing it to multiple children.”
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