How To Protect Kids In The Digital Age
Trigger warning: The following podcast episode contains discussions about child sexual abuse. Listener discretion is advised.
When Kristi McVee became a police officer in Australia, she quickly realized how prevalent child sexual abuse was, leading her to want to teach both parents and children about cyber safety and how to protect children. Her organization, Child Abuse Prevention and Education Australia (CAPE-AU) seeks to provide an education for parents and caregivers around child sexual abuse protection and prevention.
In this episode, Kristi discusses the prevalence of child abuse in the rapidly developing digital age, the impact of pornography on children, and stresses the importance of frequent conversations about digital safety between parents and children.
FROM THIS EPISODE
- Article: Parents—If You Don’t Teach Your Kids About Sex, Porn Sites Will
- Podcast: Consider Before Consuming Ep. 87: Lisa Frost
- Conversation Blueprint: Let’s Talk About Porn
- Visit: Child Abuse Prevention and Education Australia (CAPE-AU)
- Kristi’s Book: Operation KidSafe:A Detectives Guide To Abuse Prevention
Today’s conversation is with Kristi McVee. Kristi is a former detective and child specialist interviewer for the West Australia Police Force. Her time as an officer made her aware of the widespread occurrence of child sexual abuse, which motivated her to become a child safety strategist. She’s the founder of Child Abuse Prevention and Education Australia, which seeks to provide education for parents and caregivers around child sexual abuse, protection, and prevention. In this episode, Kristi shares valuable insights on child abuse in the digital era, the impact of pornography on children, and the critical importance of frequent conversations about digital safety between primary caregivers and children. With that, let’s jump into the conversation. We hope you enjoy this episode of Consider Before Consuming.
Fight The New Drug (00:58):
Well, I am so excited to talk with you. You are a child safety strategist, so can you talk about your background a bit and what roles and experiences have led you to become a child safety strategist?
Kristi McVee (01:11):
So when my daughter was nine months old, I saw an ad in the paper, the local paper to become a police officer, and I had worked in administration before that, so I was really good at paperwork and I didn’t want to return to that work after my daughter was ready to go to daycare or so I thought, yeah, I could do this. Told my husband, Hey, I think I want to be a police officer. And he said, okay. And off I went. And when she was two, I got into the West Australian Police over here in Australia. And yeah, the next thing I knew I was dealing straight away. I was dealing with child sexual abuse cases and became a specialist child interviewer. So when she was three and in Australia, not necessarily in every jurisdiction in Australia because each state has their own policing.
But when I became a specialist child interviewer, I used to sit across the table from children and get their evidence from when there was a report of child sexual abuse or physical abuse, and my daughter was only three years old at the time, and I didn’t realize how prevalent it was in our community and it really blew my blinkers off basically. And from that moment forward, I lit a fire under me and I wanted to focus on child sexual abuse and protecting kids. So yeah, so pretty much most of my career was devoted around that. I mean, I did some general duty policing and I then became a detective after four years in the police and wanted to be the person that locked up child sex offenders and spent time in the child sexual abuse squad in Western Australia and interviewing children, investigating child sexual abuse cases, and then also managing child sex offenders when they were released from prison.
So that was my experience in the police. I was in the police for 10 years. Then on leaving the police, I felt a little bit lost. I actually left the police because I had P T S D and my daughter and family, my husband sort of said, we want you to be mentally well. We don’t want you to keep going like this. So they encouraged me to leave. And then from there I actually fell into a job teaching or going to schools and educating around online safety and cyber safety. So that’s what I’ve done for the last three years.
Fight The New Drug (03:33):
That’s such a unique journey, and I’m sure you have such unique perspective on these issues because of that work. How did that time and your time on the police force influence how you have raised your daughter with technology and in this world?
Kristi McVee (03:51):
It changed everything and online, unfortunately, I think parents of my generation or my daughter was born in 2008. We had no idea what we were signing up for when we got social media and when we started using social media, we had no idea what they were going to do with our information and data. So we were sharing everything about our children. Back then when we first became users of Facebook, we didn’t really think about implications that that was going to have. And I really wish I had the foresight to know what I know now that our children aren’t ours to share online.
Fight The New Drug (04:21):
That’s so well said. And also just an experience so many parents have today that we hear from so many parents, but so many of them don’t have quite the insights that you have as well. How do you advise people on when to start having conversations with their children about these things? You mentioned you spoke with your daughter at three years old. What do those conversations look like? How do you approach this topic with parents who are saying, help us?
Kristi McVee (04:48):
Well, most parents don’t realize how young we need to be having these body safety conversations, but as soon as your child’s able to be able to talk and talk back to you, you can be having those body safety conversations. And like I said, three years old is about the time when they’re able to retain some of that information. But you can start talking about consent from the moment you have your child, Hey, I’m going to change a nappy now I’m going to do this explaining what you’re doing or to your child. But part of those conversations in body safety include you have the right to feel safe at all times, and even when I’m upset with you, you have the right to feel safe. And we take that for granted. And even until I learned that I was in my thirties or just early or just about 30 and I’d never had anyone tell me I had the right to feel safe.
So the fact that we are having these conversations with young children means that we’re changing what it looks like for them and their safety, and you have the right to feel safe at all times, and also you can talk to someone about anything. Being able to have those open communication and those open conversations and realizing that it’s not our child’s job to protect themselves from abuse, but it’s our job, but we can arm them with tools to know what it is that they need to watch out. For instance, I was teaching my daughter what’s private parts and what’s inappropriate? And people worry, parents worry that we’re exposing children to the wrong things or we’re making it so that it might happen inviting things into their lives. But actually no, we’re not. We’re actually arming them with the tools that they need because one in three girls, one in five boys, and it’s most likely someone who’s known to them.
So someone in your own family group, someone in their school yard, someone in their kindergarten. The other things that you teach about are what it feels like to feel unsafe. A lot of parents and a lot of people don’t actually understand when they feel unsafe, what it feels like butterflies in your tummy and sweaty palms and you feel like you can’t talk or you feel a bit anxious. I was feeling a bit nervous before we got on today, and I had some of those warning signs, but I knew that what I was stepping into and what I was about to do, and that was risking on purpose or it’s fun to be scared kind of things, but children need to know that the difference between safe and unsafe, and if we don’t understand it, what it feels like in our body, then how do we know to go talk to someone about it? So they’re all the lessons and so many more lessons, but those are the main lessons that we teach about surprise versus secret private pictures versus public pictures, all those things that, and we can be having those conversations from a very young age, from three onwards, I’d say.
Fight The New Drug (07:38):
Are there other questions that you get asked from parents, quite a bit of them, wondering how to address specific topics in these areas?
Kristi McVee (07:48):
It’s interesting to me because I know because I’ve sat across the table from hundreds of children and there’s a little bit of anxious anxiety and nervousness and a little bit of fear because as adults we tend to overreact, we tend to stress, we tend to make children think that, well, we don’t do it on purpose all the time, but we make them think it’s their fault, their problem, where we really need to approach things with a open, heart, open conversation and say, Hey, nothing you could ever do will ever make me stop loving you. That’s one of the things that I have said to my daughter and I really press because we need to make sure our children know, because lots of times our little people and our young people are trying to protect us as parents. They’re trying to parent us. So we need them to know that we are the parents in this situation and that nothing they ever do will ever make us stop loving them and that we are here for them to make them feel safe. We’re here for them to tell us what’s going on and that some things are for only adults to deal with, not for kids, because kids try and take on so much because they just do. They just want to protect everyone around them.
Fight The New Drug (08:57):
And I think that’s such a good reminder that most of the time as adults, we are more afraid or embarrassed or uncomfortable or something to approach the topic than the kids we’re speaking to. And we found at Fight Drug, we present in schools too, middle schoolers and high schoolers or junior high and high school aged youth. And we found a lot of the time, they know a lot more than any of the adults in the room want to believe that they know. And so it’s like if we meet them where they are and we say, Hey, we know that you’re aware of this and we want to help give you the tools to address this appropriately and properly, that’s what they’re wanting. So if adults are approaching this, parents are approaching this, it’s often invited by young people.
Kristi McVee (09:45):
And really when you go into a school and you start talking about these topics, kids and especially I love kids under the age of 12, they’re so engaged and they’re really excited because talking topics that are important to them and really they want to talk about because they don’t quite understand it yet or it’s confusing, they want to know because they want to alleviate some of their fears and anxiety around it. But I always tell parents, don’t make it about your child or they’ve got the issue or that they need. It’s like, what could kids do if you hear something in the news, Hey, I heard on the news that children are being approached online by strangers. What do you think kids could do if they ever get approached by someone online or have any of your friends ever had this happen? Or what do you think kids could do if this happens? By not making it about them specifically, then yeah,
Fight The New Drug (10:43):
Right. It makes it more approachable. It makes the topic more approachable for everyone.
Kristi McVee (10:48):
It just makes it so that kids, you’re dealing with things that are actually real in their lives, but you’re making it so that they can have a conversation with you and it doesn’t feel like it’s about them. And it’s really important that kids don’t feel like they’re the ones that we’re focusing on and they’re more likely to talk about their friends than they are to talk about themselves. And then you can go down the line and say, Hey, what do you think you could do if you were in that situation?
Fight The New Drug (11:15):
Going off of the fact that the internet is so prevalent in the lives of young people today, and you mentioned social media a moment ago, can you talk a little bit about some of the things that parents should especially be aware of in terms of ways that kids can be approached by predators are online, or where young kids and young adults need to be aware of how they can be safe online in this digital age?
Kristi McVee (11:40):
One thing that I’ve realized over the last few years, which I didn’t realize when I was a police officer, was that there’s two types of online groomers. There’s romantic online groomers that are there because they are interested and attracted to children. And then there’s the financial online groomers who are interested in just extorting children. So the thing is, is that we don’t just have one type of people looking for children because they’re attracted to children. We have people out there that are really just bad mean people who want to extort your children. And so it is coming from two angles or multiple angles really. So what I would like parents to realize is that first of all, that we need to have our finger on the pulse on what our kids are doing online and to understand who they’re talking to, what apps they’re using, have them show you what they’re doing online so that they can actually, so you’ve got an idea of what’s going on.
I’ve got a 15 year old, and even up until recently, I still check a phone now and again, I still, what are you using? Show me what games you’re playing, who you’re talking to, who’s in your friends list? Because until she leaves my home as an adult, she’s still my child and she’s still my responsibility. And these things go downhill so quickly they go downhill and they can end up really badly, really quickly. So we can’t leave it to chance or expect them to come to us because most of the time they’re not going to come to us. They’re going to go to their friends for help. And that’s what I’ve learned from this experience or from what I see on social media. And the other thing is, is that our children, my daughter even says this all the time, she’s like, our generation is screwed because we don’t know how to be with each other.
All we know is to pick up our phone and talk to each other online. That’s all they know. And she goes, and when you try and organize and to catch up with people, there’s so much social anxiety right now. So it’s more than just our kids are addicted to their phones or it’s more than they’re addicted to devices. We’ve got some actual social issues going on and that we need to be aware of as parents, and we need to have some grace and help them through it because they will get there. We just need to help them understand themselves what’s going on for them.
Fight The New Drug (14:02):
And that’s so powerful to hear from your daughter’s perspective of where teenagers are at Fight Jug, where we’re working to address the harms of pornography. Generally, we do hear from young people whose only experience with sexual intimacy is what they’ve seen in pornography, and then they get into a situation where they’re actually with another person and they either dunno what to do or they reenact violence because that’s what they’ve seen in pornography. So can you speak a little bit to what you’ve seen both in your work as a police officer and also in the work that you’re doing now with regard to how pornography is influencing this generation of young people?
Kristi McVee (14:43):
Well, probably the best way to describe it, and I saw it very clearly when I first joined the police in 2010 and I was starting to talk to young people, and I’m not sure what it would be called over there, but in Australia we call any type of harm towards children by other children, harmful sexualized behaviors. And so I was seeing harmful sexualized behaviors in young people, and we naturally and usually assumed that that child had been abused. So in 2010, we were like, right, let’s get ’em. Then interviewed someone’s abusing them. Fast forward to when I was leaving my career in the police, when we had children coming forward that were being reported as having harmful sexualized behaviors and hurting other children, it was mostly because of pornography and their exposure to pornography. And that was in a 10 year period. So I saw that.
So clearly in that time there was the odd occasion where a child had been abused, but it was more prevalent that it was because of their over exposure to pornography. And in the last few years, the staff in Australia is that an average, average age of a child seeing pornography for the first time is now eight years old. Now an eight year old cannot understand what they’re seeing and understand what’s going on in that. And in Australia, again, we are seeing children that there’s two specific age groups that are harming children and being harmed. And what the harming children’s age is that prepubescent, pubescent age 10 to 1415 are harming children of the three to nine year old age. And there’s a real big correlation between the time they start seeing pornography or being exposed to pornography and when they start enacting or reenacting. So that was what I saw in that state.
But like you and what you hear from students, my daughter’s 15 years old and she has told me that voice have come to her because she’s very openly talks about consent. And she was a little kid, and that was one of the things we taught her when she was three or four, stop it. I don’t like it to tell someone, an adult or anyone, but she didn’t want something to happen. She used to put her hand and say, stop it. I don’t like it. And as she got older, she would say, I don’t consent to you doing that. And so she’s been very open and honest about consent and she talks about it and boys come to her that from her age group, and they ask her questions, and most of them are learning about sex through pornography. And some of them have girlfriends and they’ve come to my daughter for advice.
This is the thing, we’re seeing teenagers talk to each other and they want advice from each other. And she’s hearing them say, I don’t know anything about sex, sex education, what’s going on? I only know what I see in porn. And I had a Swedish psychologist tell me at a conference I was at that she was seeing teenage boys come to her because she was in that field saying, why doesn’t my girlfriend scream when we are having sex? And the Swedish psychologist was saying that. She was like, why do you think your girlfriend needs to scream? And he said, well, they scream in porn, right? And they do this in porn. So we’re complete sexual behaviors being dictated by pornography. And I’ll go one step further and say that during my time in the police, I saw many young men be charged with sexual assault cases because they didn’t ask for consent. They did things that they thought they could do. They might’ve had consent for one sexual act, but then they went and did another sexual act, which is a complete no-no when you’re dealing with these sorts of things. So men are confused, young people are confused, and it’s all because we’re not having this conversations with our kids and they’re learning from pornography.
Fight The New Drug (18:25):
Yeah. Wow. That’s such a powerful perspective and kind of anecdotal experience to speak to what we are seeing that so many people are either unaware of or are aware of, but have just normalized and said, porn’s been around, so it’s fine, but it’s affecting young people so differently now. It’s so prevalent and so available, and it’s really telling to hear these stories from these young people. I imagine that in the work that you do, you encounter issues or circumstances around sexting as well with young people? Can you talk about that a little bit?
Kristi McVee (19:01):
Yeah, so I mean, again, when I was starting in the police, I have one story where a young 11 year old girl, she’d just started high school in Australia, and we were called in and I was interviewing her because back then 11 was really young to be sexting. We again assumed that she was being sexually abused because that kind of behavior back then was actually not normal. We are talking about 2011, 12, but when I interviewed her and when I was talking to her, I actually found out, yes, she had been sexually assaulted. She had been forced to give oral sex to a young boy, an 11 year old boy in a toilet, but also that then she’d been pressured to share nudes and stuff like that. Back then. That was very odd. But then we were fast forward again, and it’s very normalized. I talk to young people, my daughters that age group, so I’ve got a bit of an understanding of what young people are seeing.
And what we’re seeing is that image based abuse where two kids that like each other, they share, and one of them might share a nude, and usually it’s unsolicited. They’ve not asked for it. They just seem to think that, Hey, I’ll keep this person interested. Here’s a picture of me. And that’s another thing that we should be talking about is consensual sharing. We don’t just stand there and flash ourselves to people. I wouldn’t stand and flash anyone else, so why are we sending pictures of ourselves to each other? And so it’s usually non-consensual or not asked for, and then something happens or they get pressured to share it with their friends. And one of the things we have happening over here is a lot of young people using it as a way to bully each other. And so that’s a whole nother level of problems we’ve got with bullying between young people sharing nudes and stuff like that.
And that’s on one side of the scale. On the other side of the scale, we’ve got the sextortion type stuff that I’m sure you guys are seeing as well, where young people are being approached for nudes and there’s this fake account with someone pretending to be their age, and now they think, oh, well, they’ve shared their nudes. I have to share mine. And they get pressured or they get told, Hey, I’ll delete them straight away. And young men, especially around 14, 15, but even up to 24, 25, are being approached by these people and these are scammers. They’re just looking to be paid. And unfortunately, I get approached online all the time for advice from young men because they’re getting absolutely hammered by these scammers. And so that we’re seeing all of those things right now. I think the main thing I like to say to parents in this situation is, if you need to sit down and talk to your kids about why they feel the need to share nudes, what is it that they are looking for in that moment? It’s not about the nude, it’s about the feeling of being needed. It’s the feeling of being wanted. Someone wants them something from them. It’s about the feeling of being accepted. So what is it that it’s actually about? Because if children and young people and any person understood that, then they might think twice before posting.
Fight The New Drug (22:19):
That’s such good insight. And I think going back to what you said earlier about what does a feeling actually feel like in your body? What does it feel like to feel nervous or to feel apprehensive asking those same questions? What does it feel like when you’re drawn to consume pornography or send a nude or that pressure? What does that feel like in really understanding that to be able to know how to address it? So you started an organization called Child Abuse Prevention and Education Australia, and can you tell me a little bit about how that got started and your work here?
Kristi McVee (22:52):
So when I was leaving the police, I started, I just kept thinking if parents knew what I knew, they would do things so much differently. They would have these conversations. They wouldn’t be scared to have these conversations because if you work with any type of student or you’re ever speaking to kids, you realize that they’re actually less scared than asked to talk about this stuff. And it’s not weird. Once you have the conversation, it’s just when you start, it feels weird because we didn’t have that growing up. Well, I didn’t have that growing up. So yeah, I just kept thinking if parents knew what I knew, they would do things so differently. So I ended up spending two years and wrote a book about my experience in the police, but it’s a guidebook for parents and it’s got usable advice in there. And whilst I was writing that and I was thinking, what do I do next?
I was sort of having a sabbatical and I was just sitting around, well, not quite sitting around. I was teaching at schools and doing stuff, but that was not full-time or anything like that. I just sort of thought, well, how can I give more to the community? It’s always been about how can I give more because that’s who I am as a person. I don’t know. I never realized that about myself until now, but I am like, what more can I do? So I started Child Abuse Prevention and Education Australia, and I just started talking about this stuff online, talking about it on TikTok and talking about it on Instagram and sharing my experience from a police perspective, because I think a lot of people don’t understand that, although police are people too, we have a very unique perspective and a lot of people don’t understand exactly what it is that police do and exactly what their rights are when it comes to this sort of stuff as well. One thing I didn’t realize until I left the police is that how much I knew that people out there didn’t know. So I just wanted to keep sharing that, and that’s my whole goal.
Fight The New Drug (24:47):
I’m curious to know, as you have engaged in this work and are speaking with students and are encouraging parents to have these conversations, for any parents listening who might be apprehensive still to have these conversations, can you share with us what kinds of reactions you’ve seen maybe from other parents who were nervous at first but started having these conversations and I guess kind of success stories, so to speak, of implementing what we’ve been talking about, having these conversations with young people?
Kristi McVee (25:16):
Well, the thing I’ve seen, which probably has the most impact is the change in dynamics in a relationship between young people and parents from feeling like the fact is is that most young people don’t feel like that they can talk to their parents openly about some of this stuff unless a parent makes the effort to make those changes or to create that environment. I’m not saying my daughter tells me everything because she doesn’t. I found out things after the fact, and I’m not the perfect parent in any way, shape, or form. Like I’ve got a story where my daughter saw porn for the first time. I was absolutely mortified because we’d had the conversation and we’d talked about it, and I sat there having a little bit of a mild panic attack while she’s telling me that she was having sex education or puberty education at school, and I thought I had done all the work, and she Googled sex, and of course, what does, first thing that comes up when you Google sex is porn.
And she saw porn, and she came and told me that is the best case scenario because if we can have those conversations and our children know that they can come to us and we’re a safe place, then that is the best case scenario because they’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to send those nudes, they’re going to look at porn. They’re going to have all of those moments, but if they know what they need to know, which is it’s not real. It is not healthy. It does things to our brain in regards to pornography. We have no control over who gets that nude once we send it from our phone or device, but even if you do make a mistake, I still love you anyway, then our children have somewhere safe to go because most of the trouble that our young people are having is that they feel like they have to deal with it on their own, and they’re alone.
Fight The New Drug (27:05):
We often say it’s not if it’s when, right? It’s not. If they see porn, it’s when they see porn, and you’re so right. That is the best case scenario to have your child see porn and tell you, right? Because if they tell you, then they’re not having to Google what is this, which will lead them down a road that will be much more difficult for them to understand than anything that you as a safe person could tell them. So that’s such a helpful anecdote to hear. Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about yet or addressed yet that you would like to share with our audience?
Kristi McVee (27:39):
I guess just realize that it’s not just one conversation as well. It’s not the, Hey, let’s sit down and have the birds and bee talk that we used to seeing in shows and tv. It’s an ongoing every day, all the time, communication, back and forth, listening. And also probably the one thing, or a couple of things that I would say is that meet your children where they’re at. If they love Roblox, go and play Roblox and talk to them while they’re playing Roblox, because they’ll tell you what, while they’re distracted, they’re going to talk about stuff. If you’re in the car heading somewhere and it’s just you and them, it’s just the two of you, then just check in and sit there or late at night or when they’re going to bed and you lay down, they were, when they were little, when you used to read them a book, just lay there and say, check in with your teenager or a young person. Check in with your or young person and just say, Hey, I know it’s hard to be a teenager. I know it’s hard because I’ll tell you what, it’s fricking hard. I remember it from my perspective as a teenager, and we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have the social media. We didn’t have any of it. It was hard for me. So it must be 10 times harder for them.
Fight The New Drug (28:48):
Such good advice for parents and anyone listening, including educators, community leaders, anyone who is interacting regularly with young people, but also anyone who’s living in this tech heavy world. Anyway, these are all new things we have to navigate, and it’s helpful to have tools and resources to do that. I would love for you to tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about your organization or your book or the resources that you have available.
Kristi McVee (29:17):
So I actually just released an online course in regards to this. It’s for a device safety. It’s called Device Safety 1 0 1 a Detectives Guide to Device Safety. So it is come from myself as a detective, and it’s based around how to protect your kids, not only from then using their devices and to make it easier for you, because there’s a lot there that I learned as a parent and as a police officer, but also just the legal side to it, which most parents don’t understand the age of consent and all of those things. So that’s what I’ve released, but I’ve also got my book. It’s available on Amazon, and you can link up with me on social media. So I’m on Instagram under Kristi MCV author, and on TikTok as the TikTok Cop 81. I love that. Yeah, so you can just, someone told me to do it, and I did two and a half years ago, and I’m laughing over it. So yeah, so you can find me on there. I mean, I have lots of, I share lots and lots of videos on this stuff on TikTok. If someone asks a question, I’ll answer it, so that’s a good place to go or otherwise on Instagram. I’m always sharing on there as well.
Fight The New Drug (30:29):
Well, let me just say, Kristi, it was so lovely to get to talk with you. I’m so grateful for the work that you’re doing and Australia, and also that we can share this with our audience across the globe as well, and we look forward to seeing what you continue to do in the future.
Kristi McVee (30:45):
Fight The New Drug (30:46):
Okay. Thank you so much for your time.
As a global movement with millions of fighters worldwide, we’re continually growing and creating resources that educate and raise awareness on this issue across the globe. Included in our globalization efforts are our ongoing translation projects, which involve professionally translating select materials and resources into other languages. See what translated resources we have, including our documentary Brain Heart World in Spanish, our conversation guide. Let’s talk about porn and more at ftd.org/resources. That’s ftd.org/resources.
Thanks for joining us on this episode of Consider Before Consuming. Consider Before Consuming is brought to you by Fight the New Drug. Fight The New Drug is a non-religious and a non legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects, using only science, facts and personal accounts. Check out the episode notes for resources mentioned in this episode. If you find this podcast helpful, consider subscribing and leaving a review. Consider Before Consuming is made possible by listeners like you. If you’d like to support Consider Before Consuming, you can make a one-time or recurring donation of any amount at ftnd.org/support. That’s F-T-N-D.O-R-G/support. Thanks again for listening. We invite you to increase your self-awareness, look both ways, check your blind spots, and consider before consuming.
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