So far this year, the Peterborough Police Service has been involved in 84 internet child exploitation investigations that have lead to charges.
Detective Sgt. Josh McGrath tells Global News the service’s Internet Child Exploitation Unit (ICE) is involved in even more investigations that are ongoing.
“We’ve seen a lot more child luring incidents. Because of our available resources, the number of investigations we actively engage in is about the same as 2019, however, the frequency of investigations that could be started is much greater,” he said.
READ MORE: Peterborough man, 62, charged with child luring following online investigation,
In-all, the service has charged 21 people this year alone.
McGrath says, to be clear, that’s not just in the service’s jurisdiction in Peterborough, Cavan Monaghan and Lakefield, but also joint investigations with other police services.
“Because we’re getting into internet child exploitation cases, a lot of them are multi-jurisdictional so it’s forced us to expand our investigation to involve other police services,” he said. “Recently, we’ve had investigations with Ottawa Police and the London Police Service. Right now, we have one in Gatineau, Que.”
He says the reason why the issue is becoming more prevalent is the advances in technology and social media.
Kids are now involved in more social media sites and platforms than ever before.
“Our offenders recognize this fact and they’re going onto these different social media platforms and chat rooms. They’re taking the persona of children to meet them and befriend them and get into an online dating relationship. They’re finding a very vulnerable population and exploiting them more easily than ever before,” McGrath said.
McGrath advises parents to always be aware of when their children are online and what they’re doing.
He says there is no such thing as being too nosy.
Keeping kids safe online
“Be aware of what your kids are doing. Don’t let them take their screens into their bedrooms at night. If you don’t know what social media platforms they’re on, you should know. Limit the number of social media platforms they’re on and chatrooms they’re in. Know who they’re speaking with,” he said.
“The offenders online can take the persona of anyone. They can upload pictures of themselves as a child or someone of similar interests.”
McGrath says it’s best for kids to not upload pictures or information about themselves online.
The service’s Special Victims Unit, which includes ICE, will add another officer next year dedicated to internet child exploitation cases due to the prevalence of the issue.
READ MORE: Peterborough man, 38, charged with child luring: Peterborough County OPP
Meanwhile, the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre (KSAC) is educating kids of all ages and parents about online safety.
“For parents, first and foremost, you need to educate yourself about the cyberworld — the risks and rewards. You need to understand both sides of it, because that will aide in your conversations with your child, your youth, your teen, etc.,” said Alisha Fisher, KSAC prevention education supervisor.
“It’s having very open and honest communications with your kids about the cyberworld.”
Pre-COVID-19, Fisher would speak directly to students at schools about online safety.
Now, KSAC is holding virtual webinars to deliver the message to kids of all ages during the pandemic.
“Kids may be saying, ‘look, I’m connecting with my friends and class, how can that be bad?’ and ‘I have this really great person reaching out to me and saying really nice things to me and it’s making me feel really good, how can that be bad?’” Fisher said. “It’s really important to discuss these things and create a plan. So, what happens if…”
What is child cyber exploitation?
Fisher said communication and empathy are key for parents to speak with their children about the dangers online.
“I spoke to more than 20,000 students last year and the number one thing I kept hearing is ‘I may have been online and I shouldn’t have been and now I’m involved in this bad situation, and I don’t want to tell my parents, because I don’t want to get in trouble,” she said.
“One thing a parent can do is focus on how this is making your child feel. Step away from ‘why were you doing that and why were you online when I told you not to do that.’ Focus on how your child is feeling, first and foremost.”
KSAC has 24-hour crisis support lines by calling 1-866-298-7778 or texting 705-710-5234 or through webchat at kawarthasexualassaultcentre.com.
For non-emergencies, Peterborough Police can be called at 705-876-1122 or it’s an emergency, 911.
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