Since the beginning of summer in the U.S. — and possibly even before — the national debate about COVID-19’s impact on a fall return to school has been ceaseless.
Federal, state and local government and public health officials, educators, administrators, parents, and advocates have all discussed the safety of various possible options, weighing the pros and cons of each, and trying to discern what might be best for our kids, our teachers, and our communities: if we reopen our schools, will our kids get infected? If they go back to in-person learning, will we risk the school population bringing COVID-19 home? If we keep learning online, will our children’s education be compromised? Is a hybrid program just a false panacea that will lead to an eventual lockdown, anyway?
One question, however, has remained largely out of that conversation: can we keep all our kids safe if they remain at home?
The COVID-19 lockdowns around the U.S. have exacerbated what was already a widespread problem gripping our nation: the trapping of children at home with sexual abusers. Acts of severe child abuse reported by emergency room doctors and pediatricians have been on the rise, as have reports from children to abuse hotlines, with RAINN announcing in April for the first time in its 25-year history that half of all reports to the National Sexual Assault Hotline were made by minors.
The lockdowns — and subsequent remote learning models — have put children in front of screens for an unprecedented amount of time, increasing their risk for online sexual abuse and exploitation. Child sex abuse livestreams have increased in recent months, with predators using the dark web to discuss how they can exploit this moment to produce and share more child sexual abuse material.
Finally, the lockdowns have also limited the typical rate of reporting of child sexual abuse by caring adults. Doctors, child protective services, advocates and of course, teachers, are often the first to observe behavioral changes in children being abused. Teachers, in particular, are sometimes the only trusted adult confidant in a child’s life.
To help protect children experiencing abuse at home, Congress must authorize at least $300 million for child safety and protection programs in the COVID-19 relief package that’s still being debated. This includes emergency funding that prioritizes safety and prevention for children, and healing for survivors. (You can add your voice to that of more than 40 organizations working together to tackle this problem at scale.)
And to help protect all our children, none of whom are immune to sexual exploitation online, we must do our part to ensure a safer virtual world so all kids can learn and play while at home.
You can help reduce the risk your children will be harmed, by being increasingly involved in their day-to-day online life, including getting to know the people they’re interacting with. You should talk to your child about sexual violence as it is portrayed in the media, and familiarize yourself with the warning signs of sexual abuse. You can also encourage your child to speak up about boundaries, their bodies and online safety in an open-ended way.
You can — and should — set rules for how your child uses the internet. But also, you can spend time with them on new games and apps, teach them how to block users that make them feel uncomfortable, and encourage them to raise concerns big or small with a trusted adult, ensuring they won’t be blamed for any abuse that has arisen.
I am a mother of two, and at our home, telling our daughters the fall semester had moved entirely online was likely the hardest conversation my husband and I had to have with our elementary and middle schooler this summer. Both had spent considerable time over the last two months talking excitedly about seeing their friends again, getting new notebooks, and planning first day of school outfits.
I am also a survivor of child sexual abuse, who knows first-hand the pain and helplessness this trauma can have on children.
But I am confident that we, both as parents and as members of our communities, have a role to play in keeping our kids safe — and happy — while they are online. And I am certain we have a role to play in helping the most vulnerable among us have a productive and joyous return to school, even if from home.
Let’s get to work. Together.