February 6th is Safer Internet Day, a day marked annually to raise awareness for a safer and better internet.
These days most of us are “plugged in” to the internet each day for various tasks, whether it’s for work, school, productivity, or connection to others. The United Nations has long recognized the usefulness of the internet for education, community, and economic opportunity. They also recognize the dangers inherent to the internet, and it’s likely that most of us understand to some degree the exploitative behaviour and risk that exists online.
As we at Defend Dignity are focused on sexual exploitation, of particular concern to us when it comes to internet safety is the proliferation of pornography—including illegal and nonconsensual material—which poses a number of harms to young people.
A new frontier in this uphill battle is the recent, rapidly growing trend of “deep fake” pornography. Deepfake porn is generated by individuals using AI (artificial intelligence) technology— it takes someone’s face from a normal, everyday photo (such as you might post on instagram) and realistically creates a fake nude image or video of that person.
The internet being what it is, it is easy to see how quickly significant harm can be done to individuals whose photos are being manipulated in this way. Reports have emerged worldwide of students—mostly girls—being victimized by this technology including several female students in Winnipeg. And recently we all learned that Taylor Swift, the world’s most famous pop star, had been victimized in this same way.
Understandably, the looming threat of this trend is causing anxiety among young people and those who love them. They worry deepfakes will be made of them—and that because it is so lifelike, it can be hard to tell that it is fake.
Policy makers are trying to catch up to the explosion of deepfake exploitation and right now there seem to be no easy answers for how to avoid being victimized (although there are steps you can take if this does happen to you or someone you love).
However, there are other things we can do as caring adults to help kids stay safe online.
In our consultations with youth, they indicated that adults should not assume they know how to keep themselves safe online. They expressed that they wanted information and guidance about how to safely use the internet and social media.
One thing we might want to consider as parents and caring adults is our own digital habits and use of the internet. How are we impacted by what we do and see on the internet and social media? What are we modelling for the young people watching us?
Beginning when they are young, we could begin to talk to children about healthy relationships, respect, boundaries, and outcomes of our behaviours, i.e., things online live forever. Here are some excellent resources for these conversations.
A high-risk time and place is for a youth to be alone in a room with a device at night. For one, it can disrupt their sleep. They may also get into difficult situations—ie. being exploited by a predator who has convinced them to send a compromising photo—that they don’t know how to get out of while the rest of the household sleeps.
One suggestion is that everyone charge their devices overnight in a common area in the home, like the kitchen or living room.
There may also be additional technological safeguards for your WiFi router – maybe you set it to shut off after a certain time, or you use the parental controls to limit certain kinds of content. Check here and here for some technical help. Device-level safeguards may also help.
As well, youth wanted teachers to talk about digital safety in elementary school, even before many of them would have devices; they suggested grade three. They also need it woven in throughout their school experience—more than just one quick mention in health or gym class.
Another facet we should consider is government regulation. On Jan. 31, 2024, the CEOs of five major social media platforms appeared before the US Senate. They were accused of “having blood on their hands,” from knowing of harms being perpetrated on their platforms and not having a robust response. In Canada, we have a number of bills in motion that are attempting to deal with different aspects of addressing online harms, from age verification on pornography sites, to AI, to cyberbullying, etc.
Currently, Bill S-210—which proposes age verification for pornography sites—is being studied by the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security in the Canadian House of Commons. We’ve made it easy to reach out to your Member of Parliament and let them know you support age verification for pornography sites. Click here to learn more and send an email.
Our choices and intentional steps towards online safety can make a real impact. What is the thing you’ll choose to tackle this Safer Internet Day to make the internet safer from you and your loved ones?
Arlene Stinson is Defend Dignity’s Coordinator of Awareness Education and Volunteers.