Dr. Jan Kietzmann, a Vitoria B.C. professor and researcher, is a father above all else.
But due to his area of expertise in technology, socialization and online behaviours, he is often approached by parents and caregivers with questions about keeping their children safe online.
Kietzmann said while many are very concerned about how to do this, they also have what he calls “optimism bias.”
“That’s not going to happen to us. That happens to other people,” he said. “It’s thinking that bad things happen to other people and only good things happen to us. And of course, that’s unwarranted and unjustified.
“You know, these things happen to all families.”
When asked if children should be allowed to have a social media account or if they should have a phone with access to the internet, he knew he wanted to explore the dangers facing children online — not just for those families but for his own.
Kietzmann has now been recognized, along with his co-author Dionysios Demetis, for their research on online child sexual exploitation and the role that technologies and social actors play in shaping online exploitation.
Their paper, Online Child Sexual Exploitation: A New MIS Challenge, was recognized at the International Conference on Information Systems in Copenhagen as a paper of the year, winning the honour above all others on the same topic.
“It was a really interesting project that unveiled a lot of really interesting insights,” Kietzmann, a professor of information systems at the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria, said.
“And so they gave us a paper of the year for the entire association award, which we were very, very happy to see.”
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Kietzmann said they started by approaching the topic of keeping children safe online and how online predators access children from “the dark side.
“There’s so many moving parts in how kids grow up,” he said. “Technology constantly changes. Parents are permanently overwhelmed with having kids in the first place, let alone having technology on top of that, and then kids have these demands for the different kinds of things they should have access to.”
They started by speaking to former directors of intelligence services, people working in cybercrime units, school districts and police officers in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.
“So we came up with a way in which we can think about the different stages that perpetrators often go through and we can think about the use of technology on the one hand,” Kietzmann added.
“But really what we discovered is the use of imagery.”
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Kietzmann described it as a triangle.
Children are at one point, perpetrators are at another and law enforcement makes up the third. Kietzmann said all three points of the triangle are trying to make use of different technologies for different reasons.
He said imagery posted online is at the root of many of the problems.
“We often talk to kids and say, you know, ‘don’t post things on platforms, don’t record a video of yourself, don’t show photos to strangers. Be careful what you do online’,” Kietzmann added.
“Kids are not not necessarily capable of making those decisions. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed. They understand instant gratification. Now, I want to do this because everybody else is doing it, and it’s fun, but they don’t understand the delayed consequences of their actions. So they’re physiologically not quite there yet.”
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RCMP, along with agencies across Canada that work to keep children safe online, report a disturbing trend across the country in the rise of child exploitation cases.
Comparing 2021 to 2022, Cybertip.ca reported a 36-per cent increase in the overall online victimization of children.
Earlier this month, Central Okanagan RCMP reported seeing a disturbing trend — a rise in people accessing and possessing child sexual abuse material.
Last month, Global News learned Surrey RCMP is investigating whether sextortion may have played a role in the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Robin Janjua, described as a bright young hockey star from Surrey.
In October, a B.C. judge sentenced a Dutch man to 13 years in prison for harassing and extorting B.C. teen Amanda Todd .
The case generated international attention and it was revealed during the trial that Aydin Coban used nearly two dozen online accounts on four platforms to mount what prosecutors called a “persistent campaign of sextortion” against Todd when she was age 12 to age 15.
He obtained a topless video clip of the girl, then used it as leverage to try to force her to perform webcam sex “shows.” When she resisted, he followed through on his threats to send the material to her family, friends and school community three times, the court heard.
Coban sent nearly 700 messages, some from accounts meant to befriend and gain information on the teen or to trick her into further exposing herself, while others were threatening and abusive, promising to “f— up” her life and pursue her as she changed schools amid real-world bullying, the court heard.
Todd took her own life in 2012.
Just weeks before her death, she created a YouTube video where she silently held up cue cards documenting the torment she suffered and its effect on her life. The video went viral and became a symbol in the fight against online harassment.
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Kietzmann said the targeting of children online can happen to any family at any time regardless of social status, location, wealth, or education.
He explained that one of the biggest fallouts from their research was talking to parents and caregivers about posting photos and videos of their children online without thinking who might have access to that material.
“At the end of the day, as parents, we need to ask ourselves, are we just doing this because it’s expected? Or are we actually adding value to people who look at these images?” he said.
“By just life casting your kid’s dream and your kid’s life, you sort of create the sense of a digital presence that they never consented to. So we’ve got young adults that have had their entire life covered online. They said, I never wanted this. And in fact, it can change the relationship between a parent and a child when the parents always, always share things online. But it can also desensitize kids from thinking about privacy online, which has implications later on.”
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He said parents also need to take the time to keep up with technology, understand what apps their children are using and what information that app has access to and who they are talking to online. Are they really their friends? Do the parents know them?
“Bringing out some of these risks and making online life part of life at the dinner table I think is really, really needed.”
How to protect children from sextortion
According to the research uncovered by Kietzmann and Demetist, they found that perpetrators commonly go through five stages when they lure children online:
In Stage 1, offenders use different technology tools and networks (social media, games, online forums etc.) to initiate contact with potential victims. They usually create fake images to develop convincing digital identitieswith which they then approach children, for instance by pretending to be a “new kid on the block” who is looking for friends.
In Stage 2, offenders persistently and patiently develop trust through various techniques, like pretending to be of a similar age, living in a nearby area, and so on. This can take time. In this stage, offenders often proactively offer to share their own nude images, in hopes of lowering any suspicion or hesitancy the victims might have. Naturally, multiple targets/children can be pursued at the same time by offenders until their persistency pays off and victims send their own “nudes”.
In Stage 3, offenders use nude photographs provided by victims in the previous stage or manipulate innocent images to appear sexual or even pornographic. They then use these images to keep their victims in a state of suspended humiliation. Offenders keep their victims compliant by threatening to share the images with their friends, teachers, or family, unless they send more and more images or videos.
For children, it can be extremely difficult to escape this vicious circle. The determination, persistency, and cruelty of some offenders should not be underestimated. It is difficult to imagine what sort of psychological pressures this state can create for children and how they could be struggling to ask for help.
In Stage 4, Peer-to-Peer networks, the dark web, forums, secret groups and even elite child pornographic networks where access is bought, are all used to exchange imagery. The research found that photographs of children are essentially perceived as a virtual currency of sorts: a valuable, underground digital asset that is traded around the world.
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“If you think about the internet, the way that most people consume it is there are public web pages that everybody can see, everybody can go to,” Kietzmann said. “You might need to log in but they’re widely accessible.”
“But below that, you’ve got many more networks that connect different data sources to different processing algorithms. And so a lot of data happens that isn’t visible. And then some of it is highly encrypted and very difficult to get into. And these are these communities of people that operate not on the surface, but far below the surface that are harder to get into, that are harder to become a member of.
“But they are also large and where a lot of these illegal activities take place. That’s not to say that they only happen there. They harvest a lot of data, a lot of images from public sites.”
Kietzmann said it’s not easy for parents and caregivers but he thinks it starts with education.
He said parents need to be aware that this happens and that it can happen, easier than they might think.
“So really education and then honest conversations, that to me is so key,” he said.
“This is not a super safe world and we can control what happens in this house, but we can’t really control what happens online.”
Kietzmann said parents can use technology to put passwords on devices or parental controls and talk to their children about the apps they are using and what role they play.
“Talk to your kids. I mean, that’s really all I can say,” he said.
“I really, really want us to get over this optimism bias. You know, ‘this is not going to happen to us’. Make sure it doesn’t.”