Educating & Empowering Healthy Online Choices
by brooke wagner
The statistics are sobering. One recent study found that children can become victims of online grooming in as little as 17 minutes. In 2019 the New York Times referred to reports of child pornography as “almost unfathomable,” growing from one million in 2014 to 18.4 million a mere five years later. Forty percent of kids in grades 4-8 reported that they connected or chatted online with a stranger in 2019, with over 6 percent revealing their home address to someone they didn’t know. Ninety-eight percent of online predators have never met their child targets in real life.
What is a parent to do with this frightening information? One might argue that the only response is to disconnect from the digital world, lock all the doors, and shut the blinds tight. But such a draconian response is hardly an option in today's digitally-driven society. Parents need tools and resources to help them navigate the ever-changing digital world and keep their kids emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy. One Billings-born organization has a passion for providing these tools to parents and families.
End Exploitation Montana (EEM) is a non-profit group whose mission is to extend human dignity through ending all forms of sexual exploitation. With four basic pillars of Prevention, Policy Change, Recovery, and Research, EEM combats exploitation of children, which they believe stems from a misuse of technology. This exploitation can encompass sex trafficking, harmful sexual behavior, and sexual abuse. While hard to fathom, these issues are affecting our picturesque rural Montana communities. The problem is big enough to have reached the Montana legislature, which declared pornography a “public health crisis” in 2019, thanks in part to the efforts of the EEM team. Chelsea Winterholler, Director of Operations for EEM, says,
“Our four pillars were born out of our presentation to the legislature. They were basically our ideas on implementing the change we knew our communities needed to see to fight sexual exploitation of children in Montana.”
Chelsea credits schools in the Billings area with making this issue a top priority for students and families. EEM has developed a specific, age-appropriate media safety curriculum that is being implemented across our community for elementary and middle school ages. Through these programs, kids learn how to navigate social media and the internet and make healthy choices when it comes to their online behavior. Chelsea says, “For example, kids learn to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to be a cyberbully in this situation?’ or ‘Do I want to engage in mostly online interactions or real-life relationships?’” Chelsea stresses that EEM is not “anti-device.” Their goal is to bring awareness to the challenges kids and families face and give parents the tools to empower their kids to use technology and devices responsibly.
Jen Sanchez, Outreach Coordinator for EEC, says that although kids may not initially be on board with setting limits on social media, “Parents still need to fight the battle, even if kids fight back a little.” While Jen is encouraged that over 300 Billings residents have logged on to watch the Parent Empowerment Speaker Series hosted by EEM in April, there is still much work to do. She points to events like Stand Week - a peer-driven media safety program for kids ages 11-14 - as a bridge between students, their classmates, and parental figures. EEM created Stand Week to create an atmosphere where youth feel empowered to stand firm in making healthy choices with their media use. Students lead their peers in facilitating discussions, creating a culture of unity and authentic communication.
We spoke with EEM about five practical steps families can take to encourage responsible online behavior in their kids.
1. Misuse of technology facilitates all forms of sexual exploitation. Adults can set kids up to have success navigating the digital world around them by teaching them boundaries when it comes to technology and modeling responsible use ourselves.
2. Parents are the most important protective factor for their children. It is never too late to become more involved in their child’s online and social media experiences. By engaging in open and honest communication with kids about what the expectations are in their families, parents open the door to an ongoing relationship as kids grow and mature. With younger kids, this might be as simple as setting time limits on screen time and not using technology as a “pacifier” to calm chaotic behavior. With older kids, budgeting screen time combines with more online accountability regarding topics like cyberbullying, pornography, and privacy.
3. Children can develop an internal filter to help them discern what online behavior is appropriate. They can also strengthen a resolve to speak up when things don’t feel right or when they see something inappropriate happening around them. By creating a culture of online and offline engagement, parents can help their kids build habits that will last long beyond the teen years.
4. Stay current on what technology your child is using. Does your child have a Snapchat or TikTok account? Sign up for one, too. Learn how to use the platforms that have become significant in today’s culture. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but parents need to stay engaged in the ever-changing digital world our children are living in.
5. Don’t be afraid to talk about “big” concepts like pornography, sex trafficking, and cyberbullying. Parents can outline the risks and dangers of online interactions in an age-appropriate way, giving kids not just an understanding of what they should or shouldn’t do but why.
Not sure where to begin? The EEM website is full of resources for parents, educators, and community members to help educate and empower our kids to make healthy online choices. Visit them at www.endexploitationmontana.org and check it out today!