In the rapidly evolving landscape of the internet, the safety and well-being of teens have become more critical than ever. Among different instances of cyberbullying, online sexual harassment has emerged as a pervasive threat, affecting adolescents and leaving a lasting impact on their mental health and overall well-being. 

A 2022 study done by the Pew Research Center, conducted in 2022, found that nearly “half of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 (46%) report ever experiencing at least one of six cyberbullying behaviors” asked in the survey.  7% of teens say they have had explicit images of them shared without their consent. As mothers and fathers, it is crucial to understand the nuances of this issue and take proactive steps to protect your teens.

Understanding What Online Sexual Harassment Is

According to a Los Angeles sexual harassment attorney from Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, online sexual harassment refers to materials someone receives from a perpetrator or materials they post about that person. Online sexual harassment for teens is any unwanted, sexualized attention or behavior that occurs in digital spaces. This includes explicit messages, unsolicited images, and any form of online activity that creates discomfort for the recipient. It’s essential to recognize that this can happen across various platforms, from social media to messaging apps.

Examples of Online Sexual Harassment

The following are examples of what may constitute online sexual harassment. It is important to note that the nuances of how the law defines online sexual harassment may vary from state to state. 

  1. Internet stalking
  2. Threatening sexual violence
  3. Harassing someone because of their sex or sexual orientation
  4. Revenge pornography
  5. Taking or sending sexual pictures or videos
  6. Spreading sexual rumors online 

Dangers of Online Sexual Harassment On Your Teens’ Mental Health

The negative repercussions of online sexual harassment are multifaceted and can deeply impact a teenager’s mental health including the following:

  1. Emotional Distress: Teens subjected to online sexual harassment often experience heightened anxiety, depression, and fear, affecting their overall emotional well-being.
  2. Social Isolation and Exclusion: The fear of further harassment may lead to withdrawal from online activities, causing social isolation that can extend into real-life interactions.
  3. Reputational Damage and Cyberbullying: Online harassment can result in cyberbullying, tarnishing a teen’s reputation and causing long-lasting psychological harm.
  4. Potential Escalation to Offline Harm: In extreme cases, online harassment can escalate to physical harm, making it crucial to address the issue promptly.
  5. Exposure to Inappropriate Content: Teens may be inadvertently exposed to explicit content, leading to confusion and distress.

Real-life examples and statistics underscore the severity of these dangers, emphasizing the urgent need for parental intervention.

Signs of Online Sexual Harassment:

To protect our teens effectively, parents must be vigilant about recognizing signs of online sexual harassment:

  1. Increased Social Media Usage or Withdrawal: Sudden changes in online behavior, such as excessive use or sudden withdrawal, can indicate a problem.
  2. Changes in Mood or Emotional State: Be attuned to shifts in mood, including heightened sadness, anger, or anxiety, which may be indicative of online harassment.
  3. Secrecy or Defensiveness: If a teen becomes defensive or secretive about online activities, it may be a red flag.
  4. Sleep Disturbances or Changes in Eating Habits: Online harassment can disrupt sleep patterns or lead to changes in eating habits, impacting a teen’s overall well-being.
  5. Uncomfortable Online Interactions: Pay attention if your teen mentions online interactions that make them uncomfortable or uneasy.

How To Help Mitigate The Risks

Protecting teens from online sexual harassment requires a proactive approach. There are steps you can take to help mitigate the risks.

  1. Open Communication: Foster open and honest communication about online safety and acceptable behavior. Let your teens know that they can come to you with any issues and educating them about what constitutes online sexual harassment can help prepare them to identify it when it happens and be prepared for what to do next.
  2. Establish Clear Rules and Boundaries: Set clear guidelines for online usage, outlining what is acceptable and what is not.
  3. Monitor Online Activity: While respecting privacy, maintain a level of monitoring to ensure your teen’s safety.
  4. Teach Privacy Settings and Responsible Conduct: Educate your teen on the importance of privacy settings and responsible online behavior. Social media platforms have now upgraded their settings where individuals can limit comments from specific people or block comments that contain certain words.
  5. Encourage Trusted Platforms: Promote the use of trusted platforms and apps with robust reporting mechanisms. Some social media platforms will allow you to select a comment and ‘Report’ it. 
  6. Promote Digital Literacy: Equip your teen with digital literacy and critical thinking skills to navigate online spaces safely.

What To Do If It Happens

Online sexual harassment is not something that should be taken lightly. Gather all evidence possible and store it somewhere secure and safe. This can include screenshots or printed photos of emails, social media posts, photos, videos, comments, tweets, or instant messages. Screenshot as soon as possible as individuals may quickly delete what was sent. This evidence will be crucial to pursue legal action. Ensure to include the harasser’s government name, social media username or handle, and any other visible public information such as an email address or telephone number. Additionally, create a list of the date, time, and what was done in every interaction that you can remember. 

Addressing online sexual harassment head-on is a collective responsibility. As parents, you can take steps to actively protect your teens, offering support and guidance. Understanding the dangers, recognizing signs, and engaging in open conversations can create a safer online environment for our adolescents. You can work together to empower your teens and ensure their digital experiences are positive and free from harm.