Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Building Connected Communities Online

April 22, 2024

As a mom to two young children, a precocious preschooler and a toddler under two years old, I am currently in the pleasant parenting space of having near total control over my children's digital and media exposure. As empowering as it is to filter and influence my children's digital and media consumption, I know this stage will be short-lived. 

Already, my son comes home retelling the plots of shows he's never seen, and even naming the characters and details of their universes, just from what he hears and discusses during free play with his five-year-old peers. Many of them are already independently proficient in using the devices of their parents and caregivers. If I'm honest, my son already surpasses me in using a remote and remembering which remote corresponds with which device. 

All this to say, when I received the invitation to contribute to the GDP expert blog, I hesitated with the keen awareness that I had not yet earned my stripes as a parent in the digital age. Instead, the invitation came the way of my work at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), where I lead the team working behind the scenes on our annual Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) campaign, observed each April. Each year, NSVRC develops a theme and materials for SAAM to help communities learn about and get involved in addressing sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. 

This year's SAAM theme is "Building Connected Communities". The campaign uplifts the role of inclusive, equitable, and connected communities in reducing sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. The communities we live, learn, and work in have the power to shape our health and overall well-being. The campaign message also shows that whenever anyone experiences sexual violence, every community member is affected. By working to promote the collective well-being of our communities, we are also buffering against the risk of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment.

A community is any space where people gather, including neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, places of worship, and many more. When we consider online spaces as communities, it's essential to acknowledge the reality of online sexual abuse -- any sexual harassment, exploitation, or abuse that takes place through screens. This reality can be particularly uncomfortable for parents to acknowledge because children and young people can be targets of abuse, and with technology interwoven into so many aspects of our daily lives and activities, there are a lot of possibilities for experiences parents or caregivers may not be able to monitor or control. 

The vision for Building Connected Communities online -- whether via social media follows, forum posts, comment exchanges, live-streaming, text messaging, video messaging, or gaming -- is shifting the culture of virtual spaces to challenge the status quo that cyberbullying, exploitation, and harassment are inevitable online. Culture change may seem lofty, but safe, inclusive, and respectful online spaces will only be possible if we believe they are. Reaching this level of societal change will take more than just individual action -- but here are five ways that parents and caregivers can play a positive role in Building Connected Communities online. 

Model the importance of boundaries and consent in all contexts

In recent years, there has been increased discussion about how to instill in our children the importance of physical boundaries. This has ranged from not forcing them to hug their adult relatives over the holidays, asking permission before touching others and encouraging children to do the same, and teaching them the anatomically correct names of their intimate body parts while emphasizing that no one has the right to touch them. The same principle of empowering children through teaching about consent can translate to the online world too. They do not have to take any pictures with anyone or send any images they don’t want to send. They can leave a conversation at any time. They are not obligated to follow or friend any account, whether or not it’s someone they know. Our handout, “I Ask How To Teach Consent Early,” might be a good guiding point for you to build these principles with your child.

Discuss healthy behaviors and respect, including how people should treat one another even when they disagree

Just as we can model skills and behaviors like consent for our children, we can also teach the importance of kindness, respect, and inclusion. Affirming for children that they should always be treated and treat others with kindness, acknowledging and reinforcing positive behavior when they show kindness, and gently redirecting them when their choices fall short of expectations. We can normalize for children that we all have different points of view and experiences and it’s OK to disagree. The most important thing your child should know about relationships (whether they’re friends, family, or romantic) is that they should make you feel good, happy, and safe. If a relationship does not accomplish all three of those criteria, that child should understand that their well-being is more important than a relationship that doesn’t serve them or actively harms them. Online, they should know that disagreements are fine but insults and verbal abuse are never acceptable. They should also know that they do not owe anyone any words or actions to receive kind words or affection. This guide from Planned Parenthood gives parents more tips for healthy communication.

Show what it looks like to look out for others -- whether that's reporting problematic behavior or showing support for someone who has been harmed

This is a great way to show that everyone, no matter what age, has the power to be a changemaker in their community. If they see someone misbehaving online, they can report it to the platform. If they hear about one of their peers’ boundaries being harmed online, particularly by an adult, they can reach out to a trusted adult at their school. Whether online or off, if they see something concerning they can play a part in disrupting abuse.

They also have the ability to help their peers feel less alone. Starting well into toddlerhood, we can help develop empathy and parents can use age-appropriate strategies to teach them to be more empathetic to their peers. That way, if any of their peers experience this sort of harm, they know how to be a good listening ear. They will know how to challenge victim-blaming messages and help their friends not to feel shame over what was done to them. This will have a ripple effect, and can help create a whole generation of children who prioritize looking after each other!

Educate yourself and share what you learn about digital citizenship and online safety 

As important as it is to instill in our children safe and healthy online practices, it is just as important for the adults in their lives to stay connected and informed. The Family Online Safety Institute has flashcards and tips to help parents become better digital citizens for young community members. It’s also good to be aware of emerging technologies to prevent cyber sexual abuse, such as a fingerprinting service developed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children called Take It Down, which works to take down intimate imagery/video of minors.

SAAM is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the importance of consent and bodily autonomy, but it isn’t the only time. We hope that this month you gain the tools to have these conversations all year round so that one day, when your kids have kids of their own, they’re able to pass along the same messages.

If you’d like an even deeper dive into this topic, please visit one of our former SAAM campaign pages, Keeping Kids Safe Online.

This blog was co-written by Halle Nelson, NSVRC's Communications Specialist.

Written by

Laura Palumbo

Laura Palumbo is the Communications Director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. She is an expert on sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, with over ten years of experience leading national initiatives and award-winning public awareness campaigns. Laura works with national, regional, and local journalists as a source for research, background, and commentary, informing news coverage on sexual assault. She holds a Master of Arts in Communication from Penn State University with specializations in Media Studies and Nonprofit Management.