CANTON — April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It is always the goal of Sexual Assault Awareness Month to raise awareness about sexual violence and to educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence.

This year’s campaign focuses on building safe online spaces. Sexual harassment, assault and abuse can happen anywhere, including in online spaces. As we connect online, we can learn how to practice digital consent, intervene when we see harmful content or behaviors and ensure that online spaces — whether they be workspaces, classrooms, social media platforms or otherwise — are respectful and safe.

Each year, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides sexual assault agencies, such as Renewal House, with information to share with all communities across the US. As I share some relative information with your today, I also encourage you to visit their website at nsvrc.org/saam to learn more.

Parents and caregivers can help to keep teens and kids safe while they interact and connect with others online. You can have age-appropriate conversations with teens and younger children about red flags to look out for that indicate an online friend may not be trustworthy.

People who sexually offend will target potential victims on social media platforms, through online multiplayer games or on chat apps. These offenders may send or ask for sexual content — meaning that victimization can happen completely behind a screen and within the victim’s own home.

Sextortion is a crime that takes on different forms but ultimately is a threat to expose sexual images in order to make a person send money or perform other sexual acts. Parents can help keep teens and younger children safe by talking about some of the red flag behaviors that are indicative of the grooming process.

People who sexually offend often test boundaries and manipulate potential victims before committing outright sexual abuse — this process is called grooming. Grooming is the process in which a perpetrator will draw a victim in by earning their trust initially and then push their boundaries and exploit that trust.

During the grooming process, people who commit sexual abuse will manipulate a victim’s trust by passing off inappropriate behaviors as normal or “no big deal.” Parents can help kids identify red flags that indicate online grooming:

n Asking to keep the relationship secret.

n Making suggestive or sexual comments.

n Asking the child about their sexual background (have they been kissed, are they a virgin, etc.).

n Sending links to suggestive images, memes or porn.

n Asking the child to only contact them on certain apps.

n Asking the child to close the door when speaking with them, only wanting to chat at certain times (like at night) or asking if their parents are around.

n Making conditions on their relationship. For instance, saying they will only continue to talk to the child if the child does something in return for them, like sending photos.

n Discussing the child’s appearance or requesting to see more photos of them.

n Sending the child online gifts, like gifting items in games.

Parents should always take their child seriously if they share that they had an uncomfortable online exchange with someone. Contact local law enforcement if any predatory behavior toward your child is taking place.

Prevention is possible! Join us in helping raise public awareness and to educate our communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence.

Ilene J. Burke is executive director of St. Lawrence Valley Renewal House in Canton.

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