CALGARY -- A disturbing trend is emerging in southern Alberta as more children get more screen time during the pandemic.

Cases of online child exploitation are on the rise, reflecting the fact that kids are at home spending more time online and so are predators.

"These offenders are savvy, these are professionals at what they do, they are crafting their genre on how to engage with kids," said Staff Sgt. Dominic Mayhew of the Albert Law Enforcement Teams (ALERT) Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit. "And so obviously when you have both kids being at home and those type of offenders being at home, you have a catalyst that you're going to see an increase in those child-related offenses."

The ICE unit — which investigates cases where people are accessing, possessing, distributing child pornography or child sexual abuse material — has received a total of 930 files in southern Alberta so far this year.

That’s an increase of more than 300 files compared to the total of 627 files for all of 2019.

"They're very savvy in terms of knowing those platforms and befriending kids on individual sites or platforms obviously with a very specific intent," said Mayhew. "As they get to know the child or kind of socialize with them, we see a progression of activity that occurs. Some of the offenders are obviously looking to physically engage with kids, others want them to provide self-exploitation materials or pictures of themselves."

Last month, the unit arrested 26 Albertans for offences related to online sexual exploitation. The accused were charged with a total of 63 offences between June 20 and Sept. 17.

"Our job is to make as many arrests as possible to bring as many offenders to accountability as we possibly can."

Experts say parents need to be more aware of what their children are doing online. 

"Conversations parents are having with their kids are critically important because parents are really the first line of defense here," explained Dr. Sarah MacDonald, a forensic interview specialist with the Calgary & Area Child Advocacy Centre. 

MacDonald says having mutual friends on social media platforms can lead to an illusion that kids can trust someone they are engaging with on social media. She says parents need to speak to their children about digital safety often and early on. 

"It can be very helpful for parents to put in place a time of day when technology may no longer be allowed in the child’s bedroom for example. People who could potentially cause a risk for children will often initiate boundary violations, so this could be trying to normalize inappropriate behaviour. So teaching kids about personal boundaries is a really critical part of being safe."

MacDonald said parents should have conversations meant to be proactive rather than reactive about online safety.

"If kids receive a message that makes them feel really uncomfortable they should be encouraged to tell a safe adult, tell a parent, about what's going on and just really underscore the fact that kids will not be trouble for coming to their parent if they're stuck in a complicated online situation."

There are a number of warning signs parents can watch out for to see if their child is being victimized including;

  • Being secretive about their phones or social media use
  • Isolating themselves
  • Having access to things they normally wouldn’t have such as money
  • Staying up all night, losing sleep, or talking to people in their bedroom at night

"If parents notice there is a trend, or one or more of these behaviours are noticeable in their child, then I think it absolutely warrants a conversation with that child."