Online Sexual Solicitation– Kids’ Fears About Disclosing to Parents
This week’s missive from the NCA CEO Teresa Huizar, discusses a study from Israel about children and technology.

Sexuality, technology, and response: Kids’ fears about disclosing to parents

Photo of Teresa HuizarGood morning and welcome back to Monday. I hope this finds everyone continuing to stay safe and healthy. This morning, I want to highlight a study that comes to us from Israel but addresses an area of universal concern—children and technology. We are all, by now, deeply familiar with both the benefits and the detriments of technology. But for anyone who grew up after 1993, when the World Wide Web launched into the public domain, it is utterly inconceivable to imagine an existence without it.
The study is titled “‘If my parents find out, I will not see my phone anymore’: Who do children choose to disclose online sexual solicitation to?Anchor[1] In it, researchers examine the issue of online sexual solicitation, and why—and to whom—children disclose. Often, online sexual solicitation gets less attention, in part because online solicitation does not always result in offline contact. Irrespective of whether its victims ever physically meet their perpetrators, however, “online sexual solicitation of minors has been associated with negative psychological outcomes for the children, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, externalizing problems, psychosomatic complaints, self-harm and even suicide.” Id., p. 1.
Another reason it gets less attention is because so few victims disclose. A 2021 survey of 620 adult respondents conducted by the Israel Internet Association indicated that 32% of respondents experienced online sexual harassment, but only 10% reported it. If this is true for adults, the researchers posited, the disparity between contact and disclosure might be even more significant for children. Their objective in conducting the study was to “explore children’s experiences, perceptions, challenges, and obstacles regarding disclosing experiences of online sexual solicitation.” Id., p. 3. To do so, they examined 32 forensic interviews chosen at random from a pool of 54 interviews of children who experienced online sexual solicitation. The interviews were conducted in 2015, and the children ranged in age from 10 to 13 years old. There were 26 girls and 6 boys, and none of the children were aware of the perpetrator’s identity.
The central theme to emerge from the analysis is that the majority of the children disclosed to their peers or similar-age family members. Even “when the children disclosed the online sexual solicitation to their parents, they later told their friends.” Id., p. 4. While this should come as a shock to no one, what interested the researchers is the “why”—what were the thought processes that led children to choose peers over parents? Here, the researchers found three main reasons.
The first, and primary, reason that children preferred to tell peers was “their perception that peers were more closely related to their experience of sexuality and sexual abuse, whereas they viewed parents as more distant from this experience.” Id., p. 5. Often, their parents did not grow up with the internet and might not have any idea what online sexual solicitation even means. Moreover, “their peers could relate better to their online sexual solicitation because friends may have also experienced abuse online.” Id.
Another important element of the preference for peers focused on the technology itself, in part because of the competence of their peers with technology, as contrasted by the lack thereof by their parents. Some of the children discussed how their peers not only helped them stop the abuse using their technological savvy, but also that their peers helped them to track down their perpetrator to assist law enforcement in its investigation. By contrast, several of the children discussed how their parents’ actions failed to protect them and/or inhibited investigations—in one case, for example, a parent deleted all the Facebook interactions between the child and the abuser thinking she was helping, but in reality, making it far more difficult for law enforcement to identify the perpetrator. The other issue the children raised was the fear of having their technology drastically limited or taken away altogether, and the researchers noted that “[t]he children believed this response was due to their parents’ lack of appreciation of how essential the cyber world was for them.” Id., p. 6.
Finally, of course, the children pointed to the fear, and often the reality, that their parents would respond negatively to the disclosure, and felt that their peers would be more supportive. They worried that parents would blame them, and even react with anger and violence. In fact, some of the children described siblings or relatives who were older, but closer in age to the child than the parent, intervening and protecting the child from the wrath of the parent.
While the researchers recognize the validity of all these reasons, particularly from the children’s perspective, they do point out that the “tendency to disclose abuse to peers while not telling their parents or other adults is concerning. Evidence has indicated that peers lack some of the essential qualities in preventing and intervening in cases of [child sexual abuse]. Many youths are not mature enough or equipped to be helpful in their responses.” Id., p. 7. Indeed, some of the children discussed how their peers understood their “romantic attachment” and used their technological savvy to help them continue to connect with the perpetrator. And not all peers handle disclosures with empathy and grace—some children who disclosed to peers were “met with disbelief and became subject to gossip.” Id. Such “negative disclosure experiences by peers can be just as traumatizing as the abuse itself.” Id.



For the researchers, none of these findings came as any great surprise—but they do underscore the need “to create a prevention model that utilizes the advantages of both peers and parents, instead of focusing on only one disclosure figure. Creating a cooperative model between these two sources of support is likely to be more fruitful in preventing and intervening in cases of online sexual solicitation.” Id., pp. 7-8. Including peers in prevention and intervention may be a game-changer.
Moreover, the researchers encourage three areas “for parental focus in resolving children’s barriers to disclosure: sexuality, technology and responses.” Id., p. 8. The researchers encourage open, honest dialogue about sexuality in general, which will then support children if they need to disclose abuse. Regarding technology, the researchers suggest that parents “gain more awareness of youths’ media usage and invite children to openly discuss internet related issues with them to advance parent knowledge around issues of online sexual solicitation.” Id. And, they specifically note that “research has shown that limiting and controlling children’s internet usage is less effective than mutual discussion and mediation.” Id. Finally, they note that “positive parental responses are essential in encouraging children to disclose abuse.” Id.
Virtually every Children’s Advocacy Center now engages in prevention education work, and the need for it is greater now than ever before. While we still don’t fully know the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers in this paper note that “an international study of law enforcement officers and frontline responders found increased cases of reported online sexual solicitation during the COVID-19 pandemic, including online grooming, activity in online abuse communities, online risk-taking by minors and live streaming of abusive materials.” Id., p. 2. I urge you to download this study and to consider the suggestion of incorporating peers and other disclosure recipients in prevention education and outreach efforts. Additionally, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) offers a wealth of resources for both parents and children on how to talk about—and prevent—online sexual solicitation through its NetSmartz program. The more we can do to encourage and support children’s disclosures of online abuse, the safer we can keep them in the virtual world.
As always, I appreciate all your work on behalf of the children and families we serve.
Warmest regards,



Anchor[1]This article is open access.