Keira Van Der Kolk of Hamilton remembers back to when her vulnerability was plastered over social media without her consent.
Pressure to send revealing photos started when she was a 12-year-old girl. It felt then, she said, like a “regular, normal” thing for teens to go through.
Then came years of threats for more pictures, and the harassment when those were leaked to others.
When she appears on social media now, the 19-year-old shares thoughts close to her heart in the form of poetry. That intimacy is on her own terms.
“Expressing myself with words is the best thing I’ve ever dove into,” she said.
Van Der Kolk was in Grade 7 when she began getting pressured to send naked photos of herself to older teens. Her age, she said, didn’t seem to matter to them.
“I felt very empowered. Loved. But I was just actually easily manipulated because of my innocence and my vulnerability,” she said.
“How could anything bad come from feeling loved?”
But those photos ended up being seen by people across Hamilton, she said. Cruel “prank calls” started, she said — some urging her to take her own life. She started skipping school.
When she was later assaulted, she said, she blamed herself for taking the photos in the first place.
“I doubted everything,” Van Der Kolk said. “As I grew older, I realized that everything that happened to me was not my fault, and it was very real.”
‘The education has to change’
Faye Mishna, a professor at University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, said that “one of the problems to this day is that we still blame the victim” while the perpetrators are often “invisible.”
Mishna also noted that adults seem to have a merged understanding that various actions all count as “sexting.” But non-consensual or unsolicited pictures, she said, is a serious form of harassment and should be perceived and talked about differently. That’s difficult when adults are hesitant to acknowledge this is even happening.
It’s a mistake not to discuss the issue, she said, or to stick to a dismissive message. In her research, when a girl says no to requests, Mishna said she’s blocked by the person on the other end — a form of punishment. Meanwhile, boys are pressured to collect images as part of their “social status.”
“We need to go into that world and recognize the different pressures that they’re all feeling, and then help them deal with it. But the problem is saying, ‘don’t do it’ and ‘you should have known better,'” she said.
“The education has to change. Just telling [youth] not to do it doesn’t help give them tools.”
‘Nobody ever noticed that I needed help’
When Van Der Kolk spoke to liaison police officers at her school in 2014, she said, she felt “penalized.” Police scolded her for sending photos in the first place, she said, and told her she could be liable for child pornography. She didn’t pursue anything further.
The Hamilton Police Service says an officer wrote in a report that there was an “extensive conversation” with Van Der Kolk about the “dangers and severity of taking inappropriate photographs and putting them on social media.”
The service says the individuals involved were “educated” due to their age.
Police also say that anyone under the age of 18 who has or takes an image that can be classified as child pornography — including of themselves — and distributes it “technically could be charged as the distributor of child pornography.”
In the case at Van Der Kolk’s school, police say a safety plan was discussed and counselling options raised because she was being bullied.
‘It’s not hopeless’
Van Der Kolk says there should be a different approach.
“Nobody ever noticed that I needed help,” she said. “People would tell me I should have known better, even though nobody taught me better because who expects a 12-year-old girl to over-sexualise herself and get caught up with these types of people?”
Noni Classen, director of education with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said there’s been a more than 88 per cent increase in reports of sexual exploitation coming into their two tip lines in the past year and a half.
Classen said a common misconception is thinking the harm to kids is “minimized” if an interaction happens online versus in person. But the trauma, she said, is very much real.
“Many [kids] assume responsibility for what happened, and it’s not their fault,” she said. “They need to know where they can go for help … It’s not hopeless.”
Fear of disappointing adults
Both Classen and Mishna noted that kids may be afraid to tell adults in their lives for a variety of reasons: not just fear of punishment, but of disappointing them or adding stress to their lives.
While adults might be “alarmed” or “upset,” Classen said, it’s important to recognize those feelings, but manage them on their own in order to help kids in that situation.
Ongoing conversations between adults and youth — and not just a crash course — are “critical,” Classen said, especially when there’s 24/7 connectivity between people online. The centre’s website has age-appropriate resources — from four to 17-years-old — to guide conversations about personal safety both on and offline.
Van Der Kolk has since worked with doctors and therapists to address her mental health. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, she said, and was suicidal. She wishes someone was there, she said, to tell her that she didn’t need to bully herself.
“I want to move on and I know that I deserve to move on. And even though no actual justice was given, and it might never be, forgiving myself is the most important thing that I need to do.”
‘Healing doesn’t have a time limit’
Van Der Kolk started writing as an outlet in her teens, just for herself, when she was in tough spaces. She gravitates toward the form of poetry as a way of “self expression, real and raw.”
One of her poems on TikTok got an “overwhelming” 2.4 million views. She says it’s a way to process a balance of conflicting emotions — her own frustration with not having healed by now from her trauma, but understanding that it’s a journey.
“Healing doesn’t have a time limit,” she said.
“That’s why I’m going to school for social work…just to help in whatever way I can and give kids my age that type of security that I never had.”
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there:
The Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566. Also available by texting 45645 from 4 p.m. to midnight ET. More resources available at crisisservicescanada.ca
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone. Live Chat counselling is available at kidshelpphone.ca
COAST Hamilton: 905-972-8338 and more resources available at coasthamilton.ca.
In Hamilton, you can visit hamilton.ca/CYmentalhealth for resources or call Contact Hamilton at 905-570-8888.
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.