Record number: Alberta’s Internet Child Exploitation Unit ‘swamped’ as pandemic pushes kids online

EDMONTON — As we approach the one-year milestone of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have grown accustomed to shifting both their professional and social lives online. 

Today’s technology has been useful for maintaining connections in a world where physical separation is necessary – but for our children, that technology also poses some risks.

Over the past year, the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team’s Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit has opened a record number of investigations. With more than 2,000 new files, the unit has seen a 50 per cent increase in cases since 2019.

“Our investigators are swamped with luring investigations, as well as child pornography investigations,” Sgt. Kerry Shima with the northern Alberta ICE Unit told CTV News Edmonton.

Those cases involve children who are sometimes as young as eight years old.

Platforms like Houseparty, Fortnite, TikTok and Roblox can provide kids with opportunities for socializing and fun, an important part of growing up – but parents need to be aware of the dangers, Shima says. 

ICE cases often start with kids chatting while playing online games with friends.

“Then someone kind of comes into that chat,” said Shima. “We’ve seen a few of those cases where someone is invited into a group chat and inevitably latches onto someone, or sends an unsolicited sexual picture.”

Sgt. Kerry ShimaThe ICE sergeant says his unit has found kids also sometimes experiment with different internet sites designed for anonymous chat with random people.

“On the other end of that chat, oftentimes, is someone purporting to be a child who is not.” 

Those conversations, says Shima, can lead to youngsters sharing usernames for different social media platforms such as Snapchat or Instagram.

“That relationship blooms in that application, where ultimately pictures are shared. Predators are soliciting videos and images from these children.” 

Shima says one of the keys for parents to prevent this from happening is education.

“Parents need to understand the applications that their kids are using. I don’t know that there’s a way to curb the use under the circumstances we’re in, but understanding the applications, downloading those for yourself and knowing what they look like, how they work, researching them.”

While online social media platforms and games do typically come with minimum-age requirements, those barriers are easy for kids to circumvent. 

“It’s typically a checkbox,” said Shima. “There’s not a lot of security parameters in place.”

“You could lie about being 18 to get into an 18-plus site.” 

‘WE NEED TO BE CHECKING IN WITH OUR KIDS’

When children do get involved with online predators, it’s often educators who are the first to notice behavioural changes.

In an open letter to families, the principal of Roberta MacAdams School in Edmonton wrote: “(teachers) have become increasingly alarmed by what children can so easily become exposed to via online platforms at home.”

“I was trying to reach out to families because I myself was surprised,” Karen Keats-Whelan told CTV News Edmonton about her letter. “These are young children, they’re in their formative years and they don’t always know how to navigate what pops up on their screens.” 

Keats-Whelan says that educators keeping an open dialogue with parents is an important practice when it comes to protecting children from online predators.

Karen Keats-Whelan“That’s why I wrote the letter,” she said. “Because I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that we need to be checking in with our kids, making sure they’re OK and really finding out, ‘What are they accessing and how can we help them with that?'”

“This whole experience of the pandemic has put us all in a different place,” said Keats-Whelan. “Everybody is feeling this – and I do think that this is about reconnecting again. Getting back to sitting down and talking about what it means to just be a good human being and that means when you’re on a platform and playing as well – and just how do we create belonging and safety for one another.”

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Erin Isfeld

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