By: Lauren Book, M.S.Ed, child safety expert and Founder/CEO, Lauren’s Kids
“Once you send or post something using a digital device, it can never, ever, ever be deleted – not really.” These words uttered so many times to schoolchildren during lessons on digital safety and cyber citizenship rang clear in my mind as I read this week’s New York Times report revealing online photos and videos of children being sexually abused more than doubled last year, with over 45 million articles of child pornography…and growing every day.
Tech companies, government agencies, nonprofit entities, and even the likes of Ashton Kutcher are working together to combat this proliferation of abuse online. But once these digital files exist, I go back to the basic knowledge that they “can never, ever, ever be deleted – not really.” Once an image is shared, it is often downloaded, saved, and reshared – a never-ending loop of deviancy and destruction.
In the face of this chilling reality, with the knowledge and understanding that predators are out there actively grooming, abusing, and exploiting children, adults must face their discomfort and have loving, empowering conversations about personal safety with the children in their care. This conversation must start at home, but it cannot end there – as more than a third of all instances of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by a family member. Critical safety instruction must continue in schools, churches, temples, and anywhere that serves youth.
Parents, grandparents, teachers, faith leaders, coaches, and mentors: now is the time to step up for the children in your lives. Commit to teaching children that their bodies are their own, and that no one has a right to touch them or look at the private parts of their bodies – unless they are hurt, need help, or are at the doctor with mom or dad in the room. Teach them that adults should never ask children to keep secrets, and that any secret that makes them feel unsafe, icky, or not quite right is an UNSAFE secret – and must be told immediately. Teach your children that no matter what, it is always, always, always okay to tell a trusted adult if something is making them feel embarrassed, confused, afraid, or just not quite right. And help them identify three adults in their lives that they can tell anything to – from a fight with a friend to a bad dream or a touch or secret that doesn’t seem quite right. At least one of these trusted adults should be outside the family unit.
We cannot prevent every instance of child sexual abuse. It is simply not possible. But with education and awareness, we CAN prevent 95 percent of these violations. We can teach children basic protective principles so they do not fall prey to the traps predators set, and we can help safe adults recognize pedophilic grooming behavior. We can actively stop children from suffering in silence and keep predators from perpetrating these intimate crimes over and over again as they are pathologically programmed to do.
If I myself had received the kinds of lessons we teach children today, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would not have suffered the physical, sexual and emotional abuse I did endure for six long, painful years of my childhood. If my parents had been educated the way Lauren’s Kids educates adults, I am confident they would have seen what was hiding right in plain sight.
Child sexual abuse and digital exploitation know no bounds: black, white, brown, Catholic, Jewish, atheist, rich, poor, and everywhere in between – children are vulnerable and predators are skilled. Do not be afraid, but do not be naive. Empower yourself and your children with basic protective principles that could make the difference in their safety today and for years to come. For age-appropriate tips and tools on ways to talk about personal safety with your child, visit SaferSmarterFamilies.org.
Senator Lauren Book. M.S. Ed is a child safety expert, Founder/CEO of South Florida-based nonprofit Lauren’s Kids, and a Florida State Senator representing Broward County. Book is a survivor of child sexual abuse, which she suffered for years at the hands of a trusted, live-in caretaker. A best-selling author and EMMY-Award winning producer, she has dedicated her life to preventing child sexual abuse through education and awareness and helping survivors heal with guidance and support. Book worked with career educators and developmental psychologists to create the first-of-its-kind K-12 abuse prevention and personal safety curriculum being taught in 37 states across the country. Learn more at LaurensKids.org.