Parents are understandably worried about their children as uncertainty continues and phased plans begin to allow children of some years back to school. Whilst interactions and lessons are mediated through a screen, children are certainly facing more dangers through increased screen time. The NSPCC warned that the pandemic has led to a lack of moderators who combat sexual abuse online, which coupled with children who are spending increased amounts of time on the internet for schoolwork and social interactions, often without supervision, has created a perfect opportunity for criminals.
Sexual predators are taking advantage of apps which are less secure – the NCA is currently investigating over 120 cases of ‘Zoombombing’ child abuse incidents where a stranger enters a private video call and shares explicit imagery. Befriending isolated and vulnerable children through the messaging functions on apps is another example of how sexual predators are grooming children. Further risks which have been exacerbated by isolation include: online abuse, cyberbullying, and sharing illicit images between peers which can later be used for blackmail.
The warnings from the NSPCC echo research from Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, who have seen a substantial increase in activity by those seeking to access child abuse material since the outbreak of the virus, alongside an increase in offenders seeking to make contact with children on social media.
Practical steps to tackle online child abuse
To tackle this issue, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has created a list of URLs which companies can block and filter, preventing access to illicit content through their services. In April 2020, they blocked at least 8.8 million attempts to access videos and images of children in the UK.
“Online safety is a broad and complicated topic. Its pervasive nature makes it difficult to stop and prevent. As such, there is no one size fits all solution. Undoubtedly, the current COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the risks posed to children.”
Elsewhere, a cross-party group of MPs has called for increased funding to be dedicated to children’s helplines throughout this period, alongside the availability of information for parents to ensure that they’re aware of the dangers. For instance, the NCA has published several online resources and activities which can be completed with children to help parents teach them of the dangers. This is critical as only 21% of parents felt that child sexual exploitation could happen to their child or a young person they know.
The Australian eSafety commissioner revealed that sexual predators have created an online grooming manual outlining ways to manipulate and target children during the pandemic. These findings capture how immense and pervasive this problem is. It crosses borders and for that reason, cannot be addressed in isolation. Overcoming the issues of child sexual abuse requires collaboration.
Why collaboration is key
Tech platforms and governments need to come together to ensure that they are well equipped to protect vulnerable children. The COVID-19 crisis could provide the catalyst for increased dialogue between these parties.
Positive steps are already underway – the Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTIA) launched in 2020, is a partnership between expert analysts and innovative tech companies who share the joint mission of making the internet a safer place, led by Cyan Forensics and PUBLIC. They are currently working to establish an Introductory Guide for Online Safety which includes insight from government agencies and civil society organisations and will run alongside their broader work on influencing policy and regulation to prevent child sexual abuse and make the online space safer for all.
Online safety is a broad and complicated topic. Its pervasive nature makes it difficult to stop and prevent. As such, there is no one size fits all solution. Undoubtedly, the current COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the risks posed to children. Equally, this challenging period has intensified the need for preventative measures to stop child abuse and added to the impetus for governments and organisations to work together. Enacting change is an ongoing process, made possible by close cooperation between a range of organisations. Progress has certainly been made in this sector, but it’s important to keep focus and continue to create safe online environments.