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Forensic psychologist Dr. Michael Seto in Kingston, Ont., on March 13, 2021.Johnny C.Y. Lam/The Globe and Mail

Since pandemic lockdowns took hold last spring, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection recorded a dramatic surge in reports of children being sexually exploited online.

The charity receives tips from the public about child sexual abuse and shares them with law enforcement and child-welfare agencies. Over the past year, it saw an 88-per-cent spike in reports involving children receiving explicit images, videos or messages from adults; being coerced into making and sending explicit content; or having sexual images of themselves shared online.

Experts say some abusers view this time as an opportunity to access victims more easily, as kids spend more unsupervised hours on their screens through months of COVID-19 lockdowns.

“On pedophile forums or on the dark web, there’s chatter about how to take advantage of the opportunities that have been afforded as a result of COVID,” said the centre’s associate executive director Signy Arnason. “They feel they have increased access to children because kids are online more.”

Amid these troubling trends, a Canadian forensic psychologist is working to prevent this type of abuse before it happens, with a new, large-scale endeavour that targets people who have thoughts or urges to sexually abuse children – but who have not offended yet.

“I want to prevent harm in the first place,” said Michael Seto, who is forensic research director at the Institute of Mental Health Research, within the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group.

In dealing with child sexual abuse, much of the emphasis remains on the aftermath: on helping victims disclose, punishing perpetrators and treating survivors. Dr. Seto’s five-year project will identify and assess a variety of existing programs meant to aid would-be perpetrators, highlighting the most promising interventions. The material will be collected on a publicly accessible online hub. Here, practitioners, policymakers and NGOs will be able to learn how to bring the strongest interventions to their communities.

“We don’t have the capacity in law enforcement” to fix this problem, Dr. Seto said. “That’s one of the reasons there’s more openness to prevention – to stop it before it starts.”

Existing prevention programs include confidential telephone help lines, anonymous self-help websites and cognitive behavioural therapy focused on impulse control and stressors that can trigger such people to abuse.

“People are usually more resilient to feeling or coping with any thoughts and urges they may have when the rest of their life is stable,” Dr. Seto said. “This means stress management, having productive and positive ways to spend your time, and not being online all the time by yourself – which is happening a lot more with the pandemic.”

Self-help websites for people distressed about their sexual fantasies involving children saw leaps in traffic during the first- and second-wave lockdowns, according to forthcoming research from Dr. Seto.

His program received nearly $13-million in grant money from the Oak Foundation, a private foundation in Geneva that works to safeguard children, among other initiatives. Dr. Seto’s co-principal investigator is Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

People victimized sexually in childhood are at heightened risk of mental and physical health problems as they grow to adulthood, said James Mercy, director of the Division of Violence Prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He believes the new initiative is valuable, with potential to curb harm to children, families and relationships and save significant treatment costs.

Of helping would-be perpetrators, Dr. Mercy said: “It’s so important to remember that so many of these people have not committed any crime yet. The idea is to help keep them from taking that step.”

This year, the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre saw a 26-per-cent increase in referrals about possible online child sexual exploitation, primarily possession, distribution and manufacturing of child pornography, according to Erin Schlosser, the centre’s intelligence analyst supervisor.

“What we did see is that online child sexual abuse offenders in the darker reaches of the internet saw the pandemic as an opportunity, with more potential victims being online,” Ms. Schlosser said.

Ms. Arnason said offenders will also “share tips and guidance on how best to identify a youth that may go along with their strategies and how to hook them.”

Her centre is now receiving 40 confirmed reports of sextortion a month, referring leads to law enforcement. Sextortion often involves perpetrators posing as young people to trick youth into sharing sexual material online, which is then recorded and used as blackmail. Perpetrators threaten to publicize the material unless victims send money or more sexual images.

Often, they target children through gaming platforms, then move the conversation to a private chat setting or livestream. The organization regularly receives reports of youth being sexually exploited through Discord, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Hangouts and Omegle.

“Today, children don’t have to leave their home to be significantly harmed and victimized,” Ms. Arnason said.

She urged parents to be attuned to who their kids are connecting with and over which applications. Ms. Schlosser recommended that parents and caregivers speak to their children about what exactly they would do if approached for friend requests, personal information and sexual content.

Experts increasingly believe that combatting this epidemic involves educating children and families and holding online platforms accountable – as well as deterring potential abusers who’ve not yet acted on their urges.

“This whole area of offending has to be looked at in a more nuanced way,” Ms. Arnason said. “These thoughts and feelings are not just going to go away. You want to be identifying it very early on, before some of these things become entrenched and it’s harder to change the cycle.”

She added: “We’re never arresting our way out of this.”

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