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Inaugural YouthLink Cyber Safety Summit aims to protect Calgary youth from online exploitation

Protecting youth from increasingly sophisticated online harassment, bullying, and exploitation was at the heart of the first-ever YouthLink Cyber Safety Summit, held on Oct. 25.

The YouthLink Calgary Police Interpretive Centre partnered with the Calgary Police Service and Rogers to hold the summit, engaging with approximately 80 students from Dr. Gordon Higgins School in workshops, games, and other activities on being cyber-safe.

“They will be challenged, they will be informed, and they will be equipped with critical information to make educated choices,” said YouthLink Executive Director Tara Robinson.

“The topics for the Youth Cyber Safety Summit were selected after we consulted with teachers about the important concerns that they had in Calgary classrooms, and as we all know, our phones have become an integral part of our daily lives but they also pose significant risks.”

She said that the students would have the chance to learn about their rights, privacy laws, ethics online, along with learning about the threats they face, and how to build a toolbox of prevention, safe internet use, and mental well-being tools to use when engaging with online content and social media.

Among the activities presented were a pair of new video games designed for the centre—one of which was a password-cracking game that Calgary Police Superintendent Ryan Ayliffe with the Cyber Crime Unit, who said it would really show how weak most people’s passwords really are online.

The other was a cyber safety tips game, which was set to the backdrop of a police chase, allowed players to progress to catching criminals by responding to cyber messages safely and appropriately.

The summit also featured a keynote speech by Calgary Police Service Detective Dean Jacobs, with the Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit.

Chief Mark Neufeld said that reaching youth was critically important to preventing the effects of crime that police can never address fully.

“I think that this is really about, for me, looking in the eye of young Calgarians… young Calgarians, who have been impacted in a big way by people who’ve connected with them online,” he said.

“We as a law enforcement agency can go and do investigations. We can lay charges, but we cannot fix the psychological harms and the challenges that have been done for young people. Everything we can do in terms of investing in prevention and education to help prevent that from ever happening, we should all be doing that.”

Robinson said that the hope is that next year there will be more opportunities to expand the size of the Cyber Safety Summit to include more students from more schools.

“We anticipate that this summit will grow. Even for our crime prevention programs during the day that we normally do here, Calgary teachers register almost 7,000 students in six-minutes for our programs. We’ve got 90 schools on the waitlist, so we know that a summit like this is really needed and wanted,” she said.

Danger is real, and sometimes overlooked

Robinson said that part of the summit’s goals was to help address what has traditionally not been seen as a vulnerable youth population for cyber crimes.

“I think there’s a common perception that girls are the big targets when it comes to luring and in sextortion, but we know for a fact that 14-year-old boys are the most common target when it comes to sextortion. The Cyber Crimes Unit and ICE unit, in partnership, are investigating 226 cases that had been reported so far this year,” she said.

“This is when a boy will send an inappropriate picture to someone who they think they know. But when it turns out that it’s someone who’s anonymous, they will then turn around and demand payment or they’re going to be doing something or they’re going to be posting these inappropriate photos online.”

She said that the range of extortion amounts asked of these victims has been between $15 and $5,000, and is causing real harm to youth. Approximately 70 per cent of victims are young males between 13 and 15.

The ICE unit and Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) have received nearly 3,000 case referrals over last year, which is a 185 per cent increase over the past five years.

ICE was able to rescue 46 children from luring, abuse, and exploitation in 2022.

More information on how to combat sexploitation is available at alert-ab.ca/butt-out-creeps.

Students take part in the inaugural YouthLink Cyber Summit at the YouthLink Interpretive Centre in Calgary on Wednesday, October 25, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Issue for parents as well

Robinson said that with youth growing up with all sorts of online connected devices, such as iPads and cell phones, it’s a far larger issue than most parents are aware.

“As technology becomes more sophisticated so do the criminals and the predators. It would shock you to see how many IP addresses the ICE unit and cyber crimes are monitoring every day because of child pornography or sex trafficking,” she said.

“It’s a real issue, and it’s something that parents may not know what to talk about or how to talk about or even what the issues are. So that’s why a partnership like this is absolutely critical.”

Supt. Ayliffe said that cybercriminals are unbiased and ruthless.

“No one who accesses the internet with an electronic device is safe from compromise. So what does that mean? It means I’m susceptible, even in the position I have I can make a mistake. It means my colleagues, people who are members of our community are susceptible,” he said.

“It takes a little imagination to understand how susceptible children and youth are at large, given the differing stages of their maturity and development.”

Chief Neufeld said it was important for youth and parents to be educated about the platforms being used beyond just social media, like games.

“I think parents are sometimes really surprised at the mediums through which online predators can actually get access to their children,” he said.

Chief Neufeld said that there have been devastating consequences from criminal activities online, including that of harassment and sexploitation that have led to devastating consequences for victims. In several high-profile Canadian cases, victims have committed suicide after being a target online.

“So the risks go from seemingly mundane although impactful, to very, very significant in terms of family life and what happens,” Neufeld said.

“The kids will hear about all of those things. I think it’s about honest conversations with young people who are smart, but who just need to know that these risks are out there, so that they can actually manage them and talk to them with their peers and their parents.”