At Thorn, we believe digital spaces should and can be safe for every child. 

But we have arrived at a moment when the speed and scale of digital platform adoption has left many parents feeling disconnected with how their kids are navigating online spaces. That’s why we’re invested in continuing to deepen our understanding of the online risks and harms youth face today — and how those risks, along with our responses, are evolving. 

Thorn’s newest report, Self-Generated Child Sexual Abuse Material: Youth Attitudes and Experiences in 2020, represents the second in our annual monitoring research surveying kids aged 9-17 about their experiences and attitudes with self-generated sexual content. By creating a steady cadence of research and reporting, we are gaining a more holistic understanding of the risks kids face, how those risks are evolving, and what we can do to reduce potential harm.

We hope this research will inform the roadmaps of many organizations working to keep children safe online, as it will here at Thorn. 

If there’s one takeaway that we keep coming back to as we continue learning directly from youth, it’s this: parents play a critical role in educating their children about online safety. 

The time to start talking with children about these topics is now.

Risky online experiences among 9-12 year olds on the rise

Compared to 2019, in 2020, 9-12 year olds were more likely to admit that they had shared their own nudes and that they had seen the non-consensually reshared nudes of others. They were also more likely to think sharing nudes is normal among kids their age.

  • 1 in 7 said they had shared their own nudes. Up from 1 in 20 in 2019.
  • 1 in 6 admitted they had seen non-consensually reshared nudes of other kids. Up from 1 in 9 in 2019.
  • 1 in 5 agreed that it’s normal for kids their age to share nudes. Up from 1 in 8 in 2019.
  • The use of secondary accounts (commonly referred to as “finstas”) designed to keep content private from some groups like caregivers or friends, was up most significantly among 9-12 year olds, who also reported the most significant drop in frequencies for following set online safety rules.

Additional key findings

While the experiences and behaviors of 9-12 year olds were striking, there were some additional results that are worth noting:

  • In 2020, among all respondents, 17% of kids reported sharing a nude photo or video with someone else, compared to 11% in 2019. 
  • Among respondents between the ages of 9 and 17 who reported sharing nudes, 50% reported sending nudes to someone they had never met in real life, and 41% believed they were sending the images to an adult. That represents a significant increase year-over-year, where 37% of kids in Thorn’s 2019 survey had said they shared nudes with someone they only knew online.
  • LGBTQ+ youth were nearly three times as likely to share their own sexually-explicit content versus their non LGBTQ+ peers. 

Click here to read the full report.

What parents can do today

While conversations around digital safety are important for a child of any age who has access to technology, these findings may feel overwhelming for parents who have children in this age group.

To help support parents and caregivers who may be feeling overwhelmed, we recently launched Thorn for Parents to help guide earlier, more frequent and judgment-free conversations with kids about digital safety. 

The most important and impactful thing parents can do today is to simply have a conversation with their kids. Thorn for Parents offers age-appropriate discussion guides, conversation starters, and topic overviews so parents can feel more comfortable with these  potentially awkward conversations.

Here are a few ideas for parents to get started:

  • Learn more about how childhood development and technology intersect. Scroll through this timeline to explore how children develop through a digital lens. 
  • Ask your child what their favorite thing is to do online. Conversations around the basics of digital safety can happen organically and don’t have to dive right into uncomfortable subjects. Try the conversation script here to get started.
  • Start asking your child for permission before posting their image online. This teaches them that where their images are posted is their choice, reinforcing that they hold ownership and choice over their own bodies. Learn more about digital consent here.

Reframing the conversation around kids and digital safety

The digital safety of children has become a prominent discussion point recently. For example, a recent poll found that 85% of respondents were “very nervous” about the effects of social media on children.

Research plays an important role in informing not only Thorn’s work, but efforts across all components of the ecosystem that are working to defend children from online risks and the potentially avoidable harms associated with them. This is still a heavily under-researched space, but learning directly from youth — who are often already navigating these risks before parents ever learn about them — is an important step.

Understanding the complex intersection of technology and child sexual abuse empowers us to safeguard kids from the ever-evolving threats they face online. Without direct insights from kids who are encountering these issues every day, we risk falling behind in developing valuable resources for them to navigate the digital age safely.

Together we all have a role to play in ushering in developing a better internet, one that defends children from online sexual exploitation by design. 

And together, we will build it.

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