Digital safety expert Brooke Istook speaks about online sexual abuse of children, how to prevent it and how families can support victims.
Digital safety expert Brook Istook and her team at Thorn use child-focused research and technology to help parents protect their children from online abuse.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools shifted classes and operations online, parents faced a new challenge. Along with balancing family priorities and work-from-home, they realized the pressing need to monitor their children’s online activities. Long periods of unsupervised online access had left children–teenagers and preadolescent kids–more vulnerable to online abuse than ever before. But what could parents do to protect their children from online abuse? How do abusers operate?
These are the questions that Brooke Istook, a digital safety expert and vice president of Youth and Communities at Thorn, addresses through her work. Thorn is an international organization based out of Los Angeles, California, that builds technology to fight online child sexual abuse. It was co-founded by actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher in 2012.
Istook and her team at Thorn use child-focused research and technology to help children and parents navigate the online world safely. She was recently in India to share her insights and expertise.
Excerpts from an interview.
Could you tell us about yourself and why were you in India?
I’m a digital safety expert from the United States. I’ve spent the last eight-and-a-half years with a tech nonprofit called Thorn. Our job is to know the dark corners of the internet and the threats related to online child sexual abuse. We also build software for law enforcement, tech companies, and tools and resources for children and families to try to fight back against online abuse.
I was in India to meet with various civil society organizations. I met educators, students and other nonprofit organizations in this space to talk about research my team has done on preventing online sexual abuse. I was also here to help illuminate the child’s voice and experience of this issue, talk about how trends are affecting them and how parents, teachers and the adults in children’s lives can be a support for them in this emerging space.
According to Statista (March 2022), the percentage of India’s population that accesses the internet from mobile phones is expected to grow to 96 percent in another 20 years. How can parents and schools prepare themselves for this projected surge?
I think the rise of internet access is proliferating globally. What that means is that the digital world is a significant part of young people’s lives, especially post COVID-19. Now, because of this proliferation of technology, children and teenagers are having to navigate normal, but complicated phases of childhood—like puberty—with phones, cameras, and a globally connected, never-forgetting internet in the mix. We know kids as young as 4, 5 and 6 are getting devices, while kids as young as 9 are being solicited for nude photos.
A lot of times I say, we wouldn’t put a child behind the wheel of a car without teaching them how to operate the machinery safely. So, the same with a device. Educators and parents need to start equipping [preadolescent] children early, not only with the knowledge of types of dangerous situations they may encounter online, but the skills on how to navigate those safely. That could be anything from helping younger kids know that not everyone they meet online is who they say they are, or having boundaries and refusal skills.
What can parents do to protect their kids from online sexual abuse?
We call it the digital divide. We conducted research with young people and adults, where the children feel like their parents won’t understand their experience and the adults are just overwhelmed and don’t know how to help.
Starting at age 7 and 8, children are hardwired to be curious. As they get older, they’re hardwired to take risks and break the rules. So you layer in technology in these phases, and it’s not a surprise that some things are happening. But what I try to tell parents is regardless of the technical piece, there’s the human element that we can all relate to. Parents can ask questions like have you seen anything that scared you lately or did you see anything that made you uncomfortable? I definitely would encourage parents of younger children to disable chat on all the games. So, yes, it’s tough for parents.
But I think we have to bridge the gap as imperfectly and awkwardly, as it may be. And that is so critical because kids are going to come across risky and dangerous things. The isolation and the shame that comes with some of those [emotionally-taxing situations] exacerbates the issue and can really put them in harmful situations, which can progress to depression, self-harm, suicide, etc.
What kind of interventions can be made earlier in a child’s online journey to protect them from harm?
I do think we need to have mandatory digital safety education as part of primary school. And all the way through, frankly. In the United States, we have health class—that’s talking about good touch, bad touch, healthy relationships and body safety. Those same dynamics exist online. So if we just layer a digital lens into some of the existing curriculum, I think that will take us a long way. I think there are age-appropriate ways to start building their skills early.
And it doesn’t even have to do anything to do with sexuality. It can just be about people you meet online—that sometimes they aren’t who they say they are. Or if an adult tries to have a relationship with you, if someone threatens you, it’s a red flag and you can always come to me. I would advocate for there being nationwide digital safety education for young people in part because parents have a lot on their plates. And so having it a little more baked into school curriculums could be a huge help in just filling the gaps.
The internet is expanding and evolving, and with it come dark corners that are unknown to parents and children who surf the web. What kind of markers or trends must parents be aware of or look for when they’re trying to protect their children from online abuse?
We see this concept called online grooming—when an adult perpetrator befriends a child, often lying about who they are, coercing them into sharing intimate images, meeting up in person or undressing on a live stream, might even lure them into a trafficking situation. That can be anything from a friendship to a romantic connection–it can look a lot of different ways. Online groomers are very skilled at building a strong connection with young people, building trust and then using that against them.
Another trend that we see is called capping. That’s when someone secretly records, takes screenshots or captures images off of a live stream and re-shares those without consent. This person could be a groomer, a peer or a partner.
Another one that we see–and this is actually a big trend in the United States right now–is called sextortion. It could be an adult perpetrator, a peer or a romantic partner that has intimate and threatening images, and threatens to expose them in order to get the child or the young person to do something.
What is remarkable about these situations is–one, there’s organized crime behind it and two, how quickly they escalate in a matter of hours. A child goes from normal to suicidal because it’s an abusive situation and they are egging them on. The signs a parent might see would be the same as anytime a child might be going through private trauma: withdrawal, quietness, depression.
But I would say, for parents, it’s important to ask what’s going on even before something happens and start having the conversation. They actually might come to you if they feel like you would be a safe person at that moment. They absolutely need a trusted adult in that moment because they should not navigate that alone.
I tell parents that at a certain age, the request for device access and games start and they don’t stop. It’s just a constant negotiation. Each one of those is an opportunity to have a conversation about not yet—this is why.
So I think parents can use those moments to just open up the dialogue. Because if kids have close relationships with parents and their peers, offline health leads to online healthy behaviors, and those are some of the most important protective factors for children.
What would be your top three tips for digital safety?
My three tips for parents are, one, to start early. It is easy to want to put off conversations about digital safety, but start having those conversations early. And it’s okay if they’re imperfect, the most important thing is that you have them and that you open up the dialogue and build trust.
The second thing is to continue having them as they get older. And to be curious, listen often. Continue that conversation because it builds that foundation of trust.
And then the third thing that I would say, and maybe the most important, is removing shame. The power of situations that go down a really dangerous path comes from the tendency to isolate a child. What online perpetrators do is try to isolate the child and keep them silent.
What kind of expertise and technology sharing between the United States and India can help tackle the multilayered and complex issue of online trafficking and child sexual abuse?
It’s a global problem and needs a global response. There are organizations like WeProtect Global Alliance that issue best practices across countries related to this, and it’s called the model national response. It covers the best practices across the gamut for safeguarding children and having the right kind of procedures in place. So I think continuing to share best practices through venues like that is really important.
The other thing is sharing knowledge and research. WeProtect Global Alliance also has a biannual threat assessment where they look at the global landscape. But even during this visit, bringing the research that we’ve done for the last four years about children and their perspectives and hearing about what research is coming out of India—because at the core, these are human dynamics at play and those cross borders too.
So I think there’s a lot of knowledge, collaboration, processes and best practices to be shared. And we have to keep sharing them because technology is going to keep evolving and we have to keep learning together as a community.
What were the most common questions while interacting with audiences in India?
I was really happy and honored to be able to talk to so many young people on this trip. That was a privilege for me. Some of the hardest questions every time someone asked was about how parents, teachers and adults can be brought along on this issue because it’s not even just the digital divide. There’s a concern with going to parents and adults because there’s not a shared understanding yet. So that came up a lot.
Another question that came up related to that is where can victims of these situations go to get confidential help. If they don’t feel comfortable going to the adults in their lives, where else can they get help? There were also questions about support and getting content taken down because that’s really where the harm comes in, when stuff is spreading.
We talked a lot about shame and victim-blaming. There were always a lot of questions about how to shift that and it’s a hard one to answer, because it’s a long process. It’s about having these conversations as a community, youth supporting their peers, parents talking to each other to shift away from victim-blaming and put the responsibility on those that are doing harmful things.
Our research has shown that shame and embarrassment is the primary reason why kids aren’t reaching out for help. But it is the person who reshared their photo without consent or the online abuser who coerced them or threatened them—that person is the one at fault. That is so lost in this conversation a lot of times and we need to focus on protecting them.