In this episode, Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Brooke Istook from Thorn to discuss how parents can protect their children through equipping themselves with knowledge and resources. They dive into research on child sexual abuse materials and look at studies demonstrating the difficulties youth are having navigating in an increasing digital environment.
- Thorn develops programming that focuses on equipping parents to have conversations with their children, even when a digital divide exists from lack of experience and knowledge.
- In 2020, over 65 million images and videos of child sexual abuse material were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
- Research has demonstrated that for tweens and teens, age gaps become more blurry and difficult to navigate in an online space compared to in-person.
- Thorn research showed that one in five 9 to 12-year-olds that were surveyed had had a sexual interaction with someone they believed to be an adult.
- Thorn for Parents has developed toolkits and conversation guides for parents on how to have conversations with their child(ren) about digital safety, privacy, and red flags.
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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 270, How Can Parents Defend Children? with Thorns Brooke Istook.
Production Credits [00:00:10] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.
Dave [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.
Sandie [00:00:35] My name is Sandie Morgan.
Dave [00:00:37] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, today we’re glad to welcome another expert with us, Brooke Istook. She is vice president of youth and communities at Thorn, a tech nonprofit and global leader in fighting online child sexual abuse. She leads Thorn’s education and behavior change work to prevent online child sexual abuse. Brooke and her team use child centered research and digital interventions to empower youth and families with knowledge and tools to navigate the digital world safely. Brooke, we’re so glad to have you on the show today.
Brooke [00:01:17] Oh, thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Sandie [00:01:21] I’ve already had a couple of conversations by phone and email, and I’m so excited about the content of our conversation today. I’ve been following Thorn for a long time and Thorn’s work has leveraged technology in ways that are innovative, including building software to help both law enforcement and tech companies stop online child sexual abuse and trafficking. And recently, you guys have increased your upstream efforts to prevent abuse from happening in the first place, and that’s where my heart is, as our listeners know. So tell us about your role at Thorn, Brooke.
Brooke [00:02:08] Yes. So I’ve actually been a Thorn for a while. It’s been almost eight years now, and I’ve played a variety of different roles over the years. But my role now is leading our youth and communities team, which is our prevention work or prevention pillar at Thorn. And that’s where we’re focused on using in-depth research with kids, and we built educational tools to help kids and families prevent online child sexual exploitation and abuse and to enjoy safer online experiences. We’ve conducted a bunch of research over the last three years with nine to 17-year-olds across the United States really trying to understand their experiences, understand the vulnerabilities that might be at work and various online dangerous situations, and really try to get at the root of what’s going on so we can prevent these situations from happening.
Sandie [00:03:04] Let’s talk a little bit about what that research does for parents. My understanding so, I mean, I grew up my kids didn’t have digital access until they were adults, and a lot of parents don’t really know how to have these kinds of conversations. And the biggest challenge that I’ve discovered talking to parents is they used to feel like they could talk to their kids based on their own experiences when they were that age. They can’t do that now. They didn’t have these experiences. So tell us what your research shows about those experiences of children and youth online.
Brooke [00:03:50] Yeah, I think that the experience you’re talking about is very common. We did a bunch of focus groups with actually parents and children, as well as surveys to really kind of understand those dynamics, and we did learn that there is kind of this digital divide to your point, right? Like kids are experiencing things in ways that their parents didn’t exactly experience that growing up. They didn’t have to grow up and navigate normal childhood development with the phone in their hands. And sometimes parents can be at a loss as to how to guide their children to navigate those experiences in a different way, as well as, frankly, just keep up with the tech that’s constantly changing. But one of the most surprising things in our research over the last three years that’s come up is really how early these situations start, particularly as it relates to kind of online sexual interactions being propositioned by strangers online. And then one of the issues that my team is really focused on right now is what’s called self-generated explicit material. So think about situations where, like naked selfies or nudes that are either shared consensually, at least initially, among peers. But those types of situations can also happen via online interactions, where, like an adult perpetrator might try to coerce the child into sharing an explicit image that’s called online grooming. There are other situations where an adult might try to befriend a child online, start up a livestream, ask the child to undress, and then they record that, that’s called capping. And any of those situations can escalate into what’s called sextortion, where an adult perpetrator, even a peer, threatens to expose or share intimate images to get that person to do something so that could be anything from stay in a relationship with them if it’s a peer. It could be money, that happens, especially in like an online grooming situation, to meet up in person, or even create more egregious and abusive content. So it’s it’s a tricky landscape right now for children to navigate, and I think it’s important for parents to understand that these things can happen, as scary as they may sound, but there are ways that parents can can show up, even though they didn’t experience that themselves, can show up and guide their children through these experiences. And that’s really what a lot of our programing is about. It’s about equipping parents with those resources and how to have a conversation with their kid about this. When should they start having the conversations, right? What are conversation starters or even scripts? You know, what are the things they need to be teaching and how to approach these conversations in a way that their children can understand?
Sandie [00:06:41] So, I’ve been sitting in a living room with a few young moms, and we start having this conversation. And part of the concern is they don’t want to overreact and jump right to child sexual abuse material. And because they they’ve read all of their development books and they know that kids explore and what used to be right there in maybe a playroom or something that was very innocent now becomes something exploitable. So not a big lesson, but kind of a 101 intro to internet child sexual abuse material. What are the definitions, the guidelines?
Brooke [00:07:31] Yeah, I think this is really helpful context to have, but it’s also, to your point, like it doesn’t have to be about the scary, the scary stuff. So I think where those conversations are headed with those moms is is right. It’s good for parents to know what’s happening, but how they approach it with their kid will be different, right? So, yeah, when it comes to child sexual abuse material online, folks might be familiar with the the legal term is child pornography, and it’s the documentation via video or images of the sexual exploitation or abuse of a child. And that abuse gets documented and then spreads online, as you can imagine. In 2020, actually, there were over sixty five million images and videos reported to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children. In fact, I don’t know if you know this, but back in, I think the ’90s, this issue, child sexual abuse material, actually more or less went away between credit card companies clamping down on it, as well as the Postal Service getting involved. They were basically able to eradicate the exchange of child sexual abuse material. But with the advent of the internet, it’s just exploded given the easier access, the facility, and taking pictures and sharing them and all of those things. But over the past couple of years, what’s been interesting, because we obviously work really closely with nonprofits like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and law enforcement and tech companies, so we have our fingers on the pulse of where these issues are going. And about three to four years ago, we started to hear from our partners about this dramatic increase in explicit images created by children. So these nudes or naked selfies that I were I was talking about that were circulating online and being consumed by communities of offenders. And since that time, three years ago, we’ve just continued to see that portion of child sexual abuse material grow. But it’s a different dynamic, right? Kind of the situations I talked about earlier, like, you have kids exploring, right, they’re growing up through exploratory, curious, developmental stages with a phone and a camera in the palm of their hand, right, connected to a never forgetting always on internet. So it really complicates what’s already developmentally, maybe a complicated stage, right? And that’s where things like online grooming, nonconsensually sharing of nudes and spreading of nudes online, the capping in sextortion that I talked about earlier. That’s really what we kind of need to be aware of. And I think one thing that’s important as we’ve continued to unpack this issue is just understanding the harm, right, that happens in these because oftentimes we as parents, we’re focused on, you know, the physical dangers around us in our world, right? But this can be kind of hard to imagine because it’s just it’s happening on the other side of the screen. And when these situations spiral out of control and a child’s intimate images, regardless if it was coercive or initially consensual, once they start spreading, it can be really traumatizing. It is very traumatizing, and it can lead to things like depression, self-harm, and even suicide. So it’s important that we really understand these dynamics so that we can address these with our kids and prepare them for what they’re going to face and help them, you know, have a safer online experience.
Sandie [00:11:05] So one of my concerns has been how we do prevention. A lot of times in our communities, we’re reaching out to high school students, and the understanding that I have is that we really need to have access for those conversations a lot younger. So let’s, that sixty five million blew me away. But let’s go back to just statistics around online sexual interactions. That includes self-generated materials, and let’s break it down by age. And let’s start with what we expect to see with our teenagers 13 to 17. And then let’s go younger.
Brooke [00:11:50] Yeah. So yeah, let’s talk about the older children. So kind of like the tweens and teens, really, that 13 and above. And what we know is that as kids get older, they developmentally want to explore. They want to connect, their peers and those relationships become very important. We also see things like insecurity, right? Their bodies are changing, right? Dynamics are changing. So that’s coupled with greater access to technology in general. Their own devices, social media. And what our research has shown is that as kids grow up and start connecting with people in online spaces, the boundaries get really kind of tricky when it comes to online relationships. So it’s not often clear the difference between a safe and unsafe online interaction because the boundaries tend to be a little bit different. So, you know, whether it’s sexting with the crush or flirting with adults online, those categories, like stranger and friend, are just a lot grayer when it comes to those online interactions. And kids are rarely connecting with friends via games via shared interests, right? And you know, a large portion of those are people they haven’t met in real life. Now, on the other hand, with older kids, the good news is, is that the kids that we spoke to had a really strong sense of what’s called creep, what they called creepers, right? So this like creepy adult that randomly approaches them and solicits them for nudes or other things on a regular basis, and you’d be shocked at how often it happens, but they’ve kind of gotten immune to this, right? So they’re regularly blocking creepers that fall into that category. But when online relationships turn more kind of towards the romantic end of the scale, we notice that the difference between peers and adults got really fuzzy. So age gaps don’t mean the same thing online as I they do offline. About 40 percent of teens agreed that it’s normal for kids their age to share nudes with each other, and that chatting and flirting with adults they met online was also considered fairly normal.
Sandie [00:14:10] Normal to flirt with a full grown adult.
Brooke [00:14:15] Right. And you know, it’s a tricky spectrum, right? Because like, sure, 35-year-old 14-year-old like that throws off alarm bells, but there’s a lot of areas in between their. 13-year-old and 17-year-old, 19-year-old, right? 21-year-old and a 14-year-old. It just starts to get really fuzzy and I think we can all as adults sitting here looking at it, it’s really clear to us the dangers, right, and the risks that are associated with that ambiguity. Another thing that we learned is that when it came to sharing their own nudes, about half of kids who had shared their own nudes had shared them with someone they had never met in real life.
Sandie [00:15:00] Oh, okay.
Brooke [00:15:03] And about 41% believed they were sending the images to an adult.
Sandie [00:15:11] Hmmm. Wow, okay.
Brooke [00:15:13] Yeah, so–
Sandie [00:15:15] Let’s go younger now. Really make me uncomfortable.
Brooke [00:15:20] Yes. So with younger children, you know, starting about age seven or eight, you know, kids start to become curious about their bodies. You know, there’s definitely more of an exploratory kind of experience for younger kids, and it’s important to know that it’s not always sexual either, right? So one of the programs that we run is called NoFiltr, which we do educational videos on TikTok, Snap and Instagram directed at youth online, right? And one of our most popular educational videos for youth on TikTok, and it’s gone viral like several times over, we pose the question: “How old were you when you were first asked for nudes?” And something about this question resonates with the youth we’re talking to online, so much so that, like I said, it went viral multiple times and we had over twenty thousand young people comment on that video. And they said things, if it’s okay, I’d like to actually share a couple of the comments that were said because it’s really just helpful to see what these experiences are like. One said, “I was like 12 and he was 30. I didn’t understand about the age thing at the time.” Another one said, “I was nine and he was 14.” Another one said, “I was nine and I’m a guy first asked at 11 first sent at 12 and it was because I felt like I had to because the guy was guilt tripping me. I was naive and caved.” So like I said before, kind of that age spectrum gets a little tricky. And what we know as adults, looking back, right, is that whenever you have a significant age gap like that the child is always going to be outmatched, in like, decision making intellect, right? So it makes these situations particularly risky. From a stats perspective, our research showed that one in five nine to twelve-year-olds that we surveyed had had a sexual interaction with someone they believed to be an adult.
Sandie [00:17:26] So they knew, or they thought they knew, that this was an adult. So, okay, so as a mom, I remember having the book about puberty and sitting down with my daughter and walking through that and conversation. And so your research is so compelling about risks around the intersection of puberty and the internet. It’s like those books are really outdated. We need new resources as parents to defend our children.
Brooke [00:18:05] Yes, that’s that’s definitely true. Yeah, we like to say puberty and tech are on a collision course. And one thing I’ll say that, you know, these statistics can be terrifying and scary for parents to hear. But I guess what I would like to say through all of our research is that, yes, like it’s important that we know how often these things are happening or the likelihood that they’ll happen, when these things start happening so we can prepare our kids. But there is a fix: by better understanding how kind of puberty and technology interact here, that can inform not only when we approach our kids, but also how. Because how we approach this conversation is really, really critical in safeguarding them. So one thing I would just say is that, it’s really important to have proactive conversations with kids about digital safety. You know, just like we wouldn’t give them a bike or a car without the knowledge and the tools to operate those that machinery, right? The same. Think about that also when you’re giving a child a device, right? And what type of access is available on that device and make sure before you turn on chat on any device or before you give them access to YouTube that there they have the knowledge and skills to operate those things safely.
Sandie [00:19:32] Well, so let’s talk about specifically the resources that you have with Thorn for parents to address those risky interactions and keeping your kids safe. I love the use of the word defend.
Brooke [00:19:48] Right. Yeah, so it was really because of the dynamic. So, between 2019 and 2020, we saw a significant uptick in the nine to twelve-year-old age range of kids participating in and being involved in these behaviors. And so that really inspired us to think about how we can create an intervention for parents because what needs to happen is parents and the adults in kids lives need to start having conversations with kids early and often to start laying a foundation for how to navigate these situations before they start happening. You want to make sure you have that conversation.
Sandie [00:20:30] So when you say early, how early, what age?
Brooke [00:20:34] I mean, I would say like eight or nine, at least, but the earlier, the better. And our Thorn for Parents website actually tries to not only educate parents about the issue, but give them the tools they need to have those conversations. So we have things like conversation starters. We have discussion guides because parents we’re just figuring this out as we go, right? Like, we don’t have all the developmental psychology at our fingertips, much less the knowledge about all the tech. So we brought together experts, child safety experts and social workers and licensed therapists to help us create this resource. And it’s conversation starters, so how you can start a conversation, how you can bring up these topics in effective and casual way without, you know, putting kind of shame and blame in the mix. It’s also discussion guides, you know, how do you have a conversation about how to make online friends? What types of red flags your kids should be looking for? Teaching them how to trust their gut. Teaching them to be able to identify safe and unsafe dynamics. Teaching them about things like consent, digital consent and not sharing their or other people’s private information. So we get into all of that with specific guidance on how to have these conversations.
Sandie [00:21:59] So one of the things that this group of moms said to me was, it’s kind of like my little focus group, is well I’m just not letting my son, my daughter, have a device. And I noticed in the curriculum or the parents materials that you have that you address that issue.
Brooke [00:22:24] Yeah, I mean, that is an approach. It’s not necessarily one that I mean, we don’t really make specific recommendations about when and how in terms of device access. We really kind of layout the child development timeline as well as typical kind of device access for parents to get that broader view of what dynamics might be at play at different ages to make some of the decisions that you’re talking about. But in general, I would say that we would probably lean more into making sure that parents are building their kids judgment as they grow and as they progressively get more and more device access. I think locking things down on some level for the younger ages or limiting access for the younger ages is appropriate and each family has to make that make that decision and how they want to navigate that. But as kids grow up, I mean, there’s a bit of an inevitability, right, when it comes to technology, for better or worse. And so we want to make sure that as they get more independent, that they have those skills and they know how to keep themselves safe. And I will say we know that we, as parents, can only control what goes on in our own home. So if you’re not preparing a kid for how to navigate risky situations, if they’re at a friend’s house and they have unfettered access to the internet or games or chats or whatever, you want to make sure your kids are prepared for that experience as well.
Sandie [00:24:01] Exactly. I always am telling people you can’t control what happens in somebody else’s house or even in the school library, and now with so many different versions of what school looks like, a lot is online and they are online. So the shocking experience of one of my colleagues is his daughter was online in a class and was contacted by someone who had broke through the school firewall. And so this idea of having those early conversations and doing that regularly, people hear me often talk about prevention isn’t once and done. It’s just like brushing your teeth. It’s every single day. So is there resources on the Thorn for Parents that have discussion guides at every level?
Brooke [00:25:05] Yes, yes we have, we’ve broken it down by ages and kind of comfort level, depending on where a family is in their, in their process. The age of their kids, as well as like how restrictive they’ve been and you know what type of access the child has had to date. So you can filter based on the topic as well as age and comfort level. We do have conversation starters based on the age levels as well, and you’ll notice that right now a lot of the content is kind of focused on that eight to 12-year-old with some teen content as well. But we are looking in the future to expand and have recommendations for even younger ages for folks that want to get started even younger than, like eight or nine-years-old. But a lot of it will apply, even what’s up there already, for some of the younger, younger kids. But one point I would like to make for families is, so I have children myself. My oldest is eight. So we are definitely in the throes of the screen time battles, the games, like all the things. And a little kind of trick that I’ve done in my own home is kind of repurpose that ever present kind of nag for more screen time, more device access and repurpose those moments as opportunities to have a conversation and have a learning moment. So when it, when my son asked for a new game, I look at it. He knows that mom’s concerned about chat and the reasons why, because we’ve had conversations about not everyone online is who they might seem to be. We’ve used those moments that are ever present and use those and repurpose them for educational moments. Now I will say not all of them are repurposed, you know, because they’re constant. But it really is a great opportunity and reminder to use those moments to build their judgment and to build their knowledge so that they’re ready as just the internet world kind of opens up to them more and more as they get older.
Sandie [00:27:13] I absolutely love the web page. I’m looking at it while we’re talking, and I just can hear some of my friends saying, Well, yeah, you could do that, but I couldn’t. I want parents to know that this is broken down into almost a script, how to start talking and then asking, What’s your favorite game to play right now? And just repurposing the normal conversations that you have. And it takes you through this in a step-by-step guide. That’s what a lot of us need, and I love that it’s so accessible. I can do this on my phone and have it right there with me. Brooke, how do people access the Thorn for Parents?
Brooke [00:28:03] They go to parents.thorn.org. And there you can see, you know, an issue overview, you can dive into the timeline, which really gives you that high level view of like what’s happening at each stage of development and what to be thinking about when you make decisions about what access to give and what conversations to start having. And then there’s, like you said, there’s loads of discussion guides and conversation starters where you can dig into topics like stranger danger 2.0, requests for nudes, resharing nudes, right? How to make friends online? How to have safe online relationships? You can dive into a myriad of topics and we’ll highlight the most critical things for you to cover, and we actually kind of play this in the scripts we actually play out like how this conversation can happen. Like, you can ask questions like has anyone ever tried to talk to you or chat with you online or in one of your games? And then it kind of walks you through what you can say in response to that and role play a little bit so you can be prepared for those conversations and have them in mind.
Sandie [00:29:12] Preparation is key to prevention, so parents.thorn.org and we’re out of time. But if you’ll stick around, we’ll do a little bonus question about stranger danger for our Patreon subscribers as well. Thank you so much, Brooke, for all your hard work and for showing up today with us.
Brooke [00:29:35] You’re welcome. Thank you so much.
Dave [00:29:38] Brooke, thank you so much for these resources. We have kids that are of similar ages, and so I’m really excited to get into these resources here online, and I hope you are too. The best place to go to get access to all the links we’ve mentioned in today’s episode, and of course, notes is endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s also the place you can download Sandie’s guide, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll help you identify the five critical things that Sandie’s identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. Again, endinghumantrafficking.org is the best place to go for that. Sandie mentioned Patreon a moment ago. We have started this year to build and expand our community of advocates, and if you’d like to become a patron, you get access to exclusive content, including today’s bonus question, and join a community of advocates around the world who are fighting human trafficking in their community. You can go over to endinghumantrafficking.org, click on Patreon, and get access to new content like early episodes, bonus episodes, exclusive resources and toolkits. It’s simple and affordable. You can become a patron for only $5 a month. You get access to all those benefits, or you can certainly contribute more if you’d like, again endinghumantrafficking.org for more details. And if you’re already supporting us, thank you so much for your continued support of the work here at the Global Center for Women of Justice at Vanguard University and of course, supporting Sandie’s work as well, and we will be back in two weeks for our next conversation. Thanks, Sandie.
Sandie [00:31:11] Thanks, Dave.
Dave [00:31:13] Take care, everyone.