In the last two decades, the Internet has taken up a large part of people’s lives. Being less controlled, it becomes the most convenient instrument for violence. Online sexual violence, being a relatively new phenomenon, is not well studied and is often not taken seriously by society. In the first part of this essay, as we mentioned, the target of online sexual violence is mostly teenagers, and very often the cases of violence remain in the shadows, far from the eyes of society, parents/guardians. In the second part of the essay, we will look at prevention of online sexual violence among teenagers, overcoming it in case of violence, and further socialization of teenagers.
Possible ways to prevent online sexual violence
Talking about violence prevention in some cases can seem ridiculous, especially when we plan to do the main work with a person who is considered a potential target of violence (in our case, a teenager). Since there are still no effective mechanisms to control and prevent the actions of abusers on the online platforms, the most effective way to protect teenagers is self-awareness, which will help protect them to some extent and enable them to avoid possible cases of violence.
Before attempting to prevent online sexual violence, according to Siranush Davtyan, psychologist of the “Women’s Resource Center” NGO, it is first of all very important to take into account and realize that we are dealing with a teenager who requires more delicacy and sensitivity. According to the psychologist, it is necessary to speak in the language of the teenager and with the “tools” of the teenager. In this case, one of the best tools, according to the specialist, are honest conversations with the parent with whom the adolescent’s emotional connection is stronger. Conversations should be away from home, which will give the teenager a sense of security and free them from fears that someone can listen to their conversation. According to the psychologist, the main cause of the conversations should be to show the teenager they are not alone and that the parent will be by their side in any case and will support no matter what.
“Parental control” is also considered a tool for preventing and protecting teenagers from trouble on the Internet, which, although does not completely protect against violence, but practice shows that it has a certain positive effect, in any case.
According to Siranush, before taking that step, it is very important to inform the teenager, get their consent, gain trust, so that the latter feels safe and does not have a feeling of being controlled or persecuted.
“In our reality, teenagers now have a lot of access to the internet and parents/guardians do not take any preventive action before their child uses the internet. When a teenager opens an account on a social network, it is very important to talk to the teenager about the risks. In this case, it is not only about possible online sexual violence: the Internet is uncontrolled, and teenagers can be subjected to various types of deceptions and manipulations without imagining its consequences. In this case, preventive actions are very important. It is necessary to talk to the teenager, explain what the Internet is, what dangers it contains, or, for example, what it means to send a photo to a stranger, what dangers it contains, etc.”, Siranush emphasizes.
Signs of online sexual abuse
Adolescence is a difficult age, when the small and vivid world you know is expanding, when your surroundings are getting bigger and stranger, when you start transitioning to a bigger, mature and strange world, full of responsibilities and demands that you have to follow and in some cases acquiesce with, so you can fit into that world. During this transformational period, teenagers have more questions than they can find answers to, they are given more demands than they have time to meet. In these chaotic years, when it seems that nothing in your life is in its place, you subconsciously close yourself from the outside world, become self-absorbed and silent, and when injustice or, for example, violence happens to you, you remain silent, afraid to speak about it, because as we know, in adolescence, “no one understands us” or, simply, you are afraid of people’s reactions, possible criticisms and allegations.
Cases of online sexual violence are often brought to light by surprise. After that, the teenager’s parents or guardians can restrict the teenager, often placing the blame on them, which, according to Siranush Davtyan, is unacceptable. According to her, teenagers involved in such cases usually have drastic behavioral changes, which can be an incentive for parents/guardians to be more attentive and gentle with the teenager.
According to Siranush, sometimes online sexual violence can have even a much worse effect. “When a person knows that she/he/they is subjected to physical violence, she/he/they knows exactly what it is. But in the online sphere and especially among teenagers, when people say: “well, it’s not violence” or “you wanted it”, of course, the emotional and psychological state of the teenager becomes much more complicated,” she notes.
As the psychologist notes, adolescence itself is a crisis age and it is difficult to definitely associate any behavioral change with violence itself. “For example, there is the emotional impulsiveness of a teenager: the teenager may have been very active or impulsive before that, and parents/guardians may not think that this could be a threat. But, in general, in such cases, teenagers usually experience drastic changes in behavior. For example, teenagers may have a loss of interest in sexuality, or on the contrary, a high expression of sexuality, and this may be expressed in behavior, in various issues, which are not typical for their age. There may be a drastic change in hygiene. There may also be drastic changes in clothing choices etc. These can be an indicator that something is actually happening with the teenager,” says the psychologist.
According to the psychologist, it is impossible for a teenager who is under systematic threats not to change their behavior. The changes can be both minor and drastic, for example, when a teenager is very active and open by nature and suddenly isolates from everyone, becomes closed, self-absorbed. According to her, parents often associate these behavioral changes with age characteristics, which usually leads to various disputes, as a result of which the emotional connection between the teenager and the parent/guardian is broken or undermined.
Coping with online sexual harassment
Society is often very merciless and strict towards a person subjected to violence: they usually forget about the existence of the abuser and start victim-blaming, making everything related to them the subject of discussion, and the verdict is usually one: “the abused is the guilty side.”
As Siranush notes, the age of the victim of violence plays an important role in shaping society’s attitude. For example, if in the case of minors up to 12-13 years old, the attitude is more compassionate, in the case of 14-17-year-old teenagers and already adults, society has completely different approaches. “Society has an ambiguous attitude towards victims of violence. Teenagers aged 14-17 are the most targeted in this case. After that, the abused person can be subjected to very strong psychological violence by relatives and very often the teenager is left alone with their mental state. In this case, the society or an individual is hardly able to support and help the teenager, because the latter is under the guardianship of the parents/guardians”, the psychologist notes, adding that in such cases it is important for the teenager to have supporters who will help them overcome and tell that they are not to blame and that it could have happened to anyone. “In general, a person who has been sexually abused, unfortunately or fortunately, has nothing to do because they are not to blame for what happened,” Siranush says.
The strongest support of the abused teenager is considered the family, which, in fact, bears the responsibility of the teenager’s guardianship. But often, after the violence, it is the same family that continues to abuse their child with accusations of “disgracing behavior” and “having dishonored their name”.
According to Siranush, in case of witnessing such incidents, the society should not remain passive. “If there is clear violence against a teenager by parents/guardians, we can contact the police and report that the child is being abused in the family. It’s just that we don’t have that culture in Armenia, because people mostly look at the issue from the position of parents and try to find an excuse, considering it an educational method in favor of the child,” she says.
According to Siranush, one can also try to talk to the parents separately. “It is important to talk about the fact that the violence started by them aggravates the consequences much more. In this case, it is also very important to keep in touch with the teenager, so that at least the teenager has someone in their circle whom they can trust, share emotions, feelings, and not have a feeling of guilt, etc.”, emphasizes the specialist.
As an alternative solution to the problem, according to Siranush Davtyan, it is necessary to contribute to raising awareness of the family, for example, if possible, to direct them to participate in parenting trainings. “In my opinion, one of the most important parts is to reduce the sense of impunity for parents. A parent should understand that using violence against a child is a punishable and criminal act,” concludes Siranush.
In a rapidly changing world, we often do not manage to adapt to the new reality when it changes again. Every change brings with it new challenges, and often we simply do not manage to understand their nature, find the mechanisms and tools to solve and overcome them. Despite all that, we don’t need tools and methods to be more gentle, more caring, to show that we are not indifferent, to fight against injustices, violent people, to inform, protect, care, help … These may not bring radical changes, but they will definitely have a positive effect.
By Yelena Sargsyan