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‘Beware of strangers’ has urgent meaning in world of video chat Add to ...

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two-part series on cyberbullying. Part one can be found here.

Before Amanda Todd and other similar cases of online youth victimization, parents warned their children about predators and creeps in the real world and how to avoid them.

But as technology flourishes, such predators are only an Internet connection away from the bedrooms and private worlds of youths. As their worlds become smaller, the distinction becomes less clear, says Cpl. Mat Van Laer, supervisor and investigator for the RCMP’s Integrated Child Exploitation unit in B.C.

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“In the past, our parents would say, ‘Beware of strangers, don’t talk to strangers, don’t accept candies from the guy beside the big white van,’” he said.

“Today, those strangers are becoming your friends on social media. If you’re not careful and you accept all these contacts on your social media websites of choice, all of a sudden you have kids or teenagers with 200, 300, 400, 500 friends. Well, let’s be honest here: They’re not friends, they’re strangers. And we don’t know which one of them has a big white van.”

While the potential dangers of the Web are not new, Amanda’s death highlights the less popular but growing subculture of video chat communities like blogTV, Tinychat and Stickam.

Like in text chat rooms, predators in video chat communities often groom their targets by befriending them over time and plying them with compliments. Even the briefest moment of indiscretion in a video chat can be recorded or screen capped and forever immortalized – or used to coerce victims into doing and showing more.

Video chatting has grown in popularity with the proliferation of smart phones, tablets and computers with built-in cameras. A report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project released this year found 37 per cent of Internet users between the ages of 12 and 17 participate in video chats, while 27 per cent record and upload video to the Internet.

Social media users are much more likely to engage in video activities than those who are not social media users, the report stated.

The figures grow concerning when paired with those from a study released this week by the Internet Watch Foundation. It found nearly 90 per cent of the self-generated, sexually explicit images of young people online had been taken from their original location and uploaded on to other websites.

“The research gives an unsettling indication of the number of images and videos on the Internet featuring young people performing sexually explicit acts or posing,” CEO Susie Hargreaves said in a statement.

“It also highlights the problem of controlling these images: Once an image has been copied on to a parasite website, it will no longer suffice to simply remove the image from the online account. We need young people to realize that once an image or a video has gone online, they may never be able to remove it entirely.”

Regarding online predators, Cpl. Van Laer offers some sobering numbers of his own: “Realistically, if you contact 100 kids and ask them to produce naked pictures of themselves, and you’re counting on, let’s say, just a 1 per cent return, you just need to ask 100 kids,” he said. “How long does that take on a website that has hundreds of them?

“That’s the scary part: Statistically speaking, they will succeed.”

To keep up with evolving trends and technology, members of the RCMP’s Integrated Child Exploitation unit train in specialized courses such as digital technology for investigators and Internet child exploitation. There are also conferences every year and the ICE unit meets twice a year.

At home, Cpl. Van Laer stresses the importance of parents having an open line of communication with children regarding Internet usage. He cited studies suggesting the majority of employers run online checks before hiring and cautioned young people that images posted now can come back to haunt them later.

Private images need to be carefully considered as well, Cpl. Van Laer said.

“It's all fine and dandy, because when you’re 13, 14, 15, your boyfriend or girlfriend at the time is your boyfriend or girlfriend for life – until they’re not anymore,” he said. “And then what happens to those images?”

Parents seeking Internet safety resources can visit cybertip.ca.

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