Employee & Community Health

Child abuse trend: Engaging in pornography

4/10/2017 by Ellen Case, LICSW

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Back in the day, kids sneaked peeks at an older sibling's "girlie" magazines found under a mattress or in the back of a closet. Today, with the click of a mouse or tap of a finger, they have access to a Pandora's box of pornography experience. That ranges from viewing images and videos online to engaging in sexual flirtation on chat sites to texting nude photos or explicit texts (sexting) among their peers. Not only is the availability of pornography practically limitless, its impact is different. Those adult magazines showed still photographs; online videos show sex being acted out. 

Once kids hit middle school, it's natural for them to begin exploring sex and sexuality. But the "Wild West" of online pornography poses dangers for tweens and teens and creates challenges for parents. Most parents who contact the Mayo Clinic Child and Family Advocacy Center are shocked to learn what their children have become involved in. 

Opportunities abound for kids to be sexually exploited. For example, a teenager may think they're going into a chat room with other teens. Someone asks them to send a nude photo, which they do, only to learn that it's really an adult. This person may threaten them with sharing the photos if they don't provide more or take their contact to the next level. This also can take place among their peers or classmates. Kids can be exploited by adults who promise drugs, food, shelter, money or other basics of life in exchange for sex or participating in sexually explicit websites. 

Any child is vulnerable to exploitation, but those at higher risk include kids living in poverty, in foster care, who are runaways or have a developmental disability. 

Education and communication are a parent's best protection for their children. 

  • Provide a supportive environment and encourage open conversations with your kids. 
  • Monitor their electronics and put safeguards on them, recognizing that these tools aren't "hack-proof."
  • Check your child's search history to keep a pulse on what they're looking at (this is NOT snooping). 
  • Have access to their social media sites, including passwords. It's not enough to be their Facebook friend. 
  • Make a rule that computers, smartphones and tablets be used in family areas. Consider requiring that all devices have to be on the parents' dresser before bedtime.

Changes in a child's behavior can be a red flag that they've gotten into a situation beyond their ability to cope with it. Some indicators include: 

  • Depression
  • Slumping grades
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal from the family and wanting to spend time alone
  • Having an older boyfriend
  • Suddenly having expensive things such as clothing, jewelry, athletic shoes, etc. 
  • Carrying multiple cell phones (one for "business")

If you suspect that your child is being sexually exploited, reach out to your primary care team, school liaison, mental health professional and programs such as the Mayo Clinic Child and Family Advocacy Center. 

Ellen Case, LICSW, is the program coordinator with the Mayo Clinic Child and Family Advocacy Center and has been with the Mayo Clinic for more than 25 years. Prior to her role with the child abuse team, she worked as a clinical social worker in pediatrics and transplant. Ellen is the secretary of the Mayo Ethics Enterprise Committee and Ethics Education Committee. She presents at local and national meetings and mentors new social workers.