As a trial is underway of a man accused of cyberbullying of Amanda Todd, a Port Coquitlam teen who took her life about a decade ago, one Richmond educator thinks the best way to combat sexual exploitation is to give factual information and avoid a “fear and shame” approach.
Tiana Sharifi, who does presentations in schools about sexual exploitation, said talking to teens about sextortion should be about building trust with kids so they know they can talk to trusted adults if someone is preying on them.
“There’s that concept when we’re talking to kids (of) creating a shame by having conversations about how wrong it is to do such a thing, instead of also talking about, ‘if that ever happens to you, I’m here for you’ and opening up that communication,” Sharifi said, whose private business, Sexual Exploitation Education, offers presentations to schools and other organizations.
She added there is more focus on the idea of getting into trouble instead of talking about the well-being and mental health of the victimized person.
The rate of sextortion seems to be increasing, Sharifi said, but there are resources to help kids who might be caught in a compromising situation.
Sharifi’s advice to parents is to educate themselves on resources available and how to talk with their teens, rather than thinking “my kid knows better.”
A few years ago, after giving a parent presentation at a Richmond school, Sharifi received a phone call the next day from a parent who had attended. The parent had gone home, spoken with their child about sextortion, as suggested at the presentation, and in the night, the teen had woken the parent up and told them they had been sextorted.
If a teen is being exploited online, Sharifi said the first thing to do is stop engaging with the predator, keep records of all interactions, including chats, and report the exploitation.
The Canadian government has set up cybertip.ca where anyone being exploited can get help with image removal, getting in touch with police and other support.
Richmond youth targeted by predators
Through her work, Sharifi said she’s learned of seven incidents of attempted sexual grooming and exploitation of youth who attend three different Richmond high schools in the last year. (Sharifi, however, can’t name the schools because of privacy issues.)
She urges all schools to hold information sessions to make sure kids get the right information so they don’t fall prey to sextortion.
However, she said she finds it “alarming” that some school counsellors seem more focused on image sharing and consent issues among peers at the expense of talking about how kids are groomed into the sex trade.
Youth from immigrant families and impoverished backgrounds who are longing for belonging and acceptance tend to be more vulnerable to these predators, Sharifi said.
The process of grooming starts with a youth being contacted online by someone older who, at first, is very flattering and gives a glimpse into a possible luxurious, glamorous lifestyle.
With the school summer break approaching and teens having more free time, Sharifi is concerned there will be more opportunities to be exploited online.
Richmond students in Grade 6/7 receive an annual presentation called “Taking Care of Ourselves and Taking Care of Others” from the Children of the Street Society, which covers topics like sexual exploitation, recruitment and luring, gangs and healthy relationships both online and in-person.
Furthermore, secondary schools are “encouraged” to also hold this presentation, according to the school district.
Educator recommends looking for key red flags
Sharifi said there are key red flags that teens can look for when watching for predators, and these predators often follows a pattern.
One early sign is if someone starts “love bombing” – showering with attention - a potential victim very soon after making contact, especially when they’ve never met.
Often, the next step is when the predator asks the potential victim to move to another platform where livestreaming is possible.
And the third step is asking for nude photos or sex images.
Trial on-going for Dutch man accused of cyberbullying Amanda Todd
Aydin Coban, a native of the Netherlands, is currently on trial in New Westminster in BC Supreme Court.
Crown counsel alleges Coban used 22 fake accounts to “sextort” Amanda Todd.
Coban has pleaded not guilty to charges of extortion, importing and distributing child pornography, possession of child pornography, communicating with the intent to lure a child and criminal harassment.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, and Norm Todd, her father, have been testifying in court this week how the alleged cyberbullying affected her emotional health.
Carol Todd, will be doing a joint virtual presentation called “The Modern-Day Predator” with Sharifi, hosted by Safer Schools Together, on Wednesday, June 15 in the evening. Information can be found at Sharifi’s website SexualExploitationEducation.com.
- With files from Janis Cleugh/Glacier Media