The coronavirus pandemic has prompted thousands of schools across the world to close. This effort aims to curb the further spread of the disease. Statistics show that the closures have affected an estimated 1.5 billion children and young people—over 91% of the world’s student population. As a result, children spend a lot of time online now more than ever. Parents fear that as they spend more time on the Internet and social media, the more vulnerable children may fall victim to sexual predators, cyberbullying, and other forms of online harm.
In 2018, tech companies reported a record 45 million online photos and videos of sexually abused children. Online predators target vulnerable children to send them their explicit photos and then they create and share the material across the Internet. Many tech companies have not only failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms but also cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it. A 2019 paper described this as “a breaking point,” with reports of abusive images “exceeding the capabilities of independent clearinghouses and law enforcement to take action.”
Children whose explicit photos are on the Internet live in constant fear of being recognized. Parents of the abused, on the other hand, struggle to cope with the guilt of not having prevented it. “I don’t really know how to deal with it. You’re just trying to feel O.K. and not let something like this define your whole life. But the thing with the pictures is — that’s the thing that keeps this alive,” said one woman who, at age 11, had been filmed being sexually assaulted by her father.
Online Sexual Exploitation During This Pandemic
Millions of children across the world are at risk of being victims of online sexual exploitation. This usually involves grooming, live streaming, consuming child sexual abuse material, and coercing and blackmailing children for sexual purposes. The advancement of technology has allowed perpetrators to make contact with children, share images of abuse, and hide their identity and profits. Worse, they even encourage each other to commit further crimes.
Now that children spend most of their time online, they can be easy targets of online predators. A recent report from Europol revealed that there has been an increase in the digital activity of those seeking to sexually exploit children through the Internet. Perpetrators find a way to contact them, expecting that they are more vulnerable because of social isolation and less supervision from their parents. Often, they pose as minors to start innocuous conversations. Eventually, these interactions would escalate into pressuring children to send them sexually explicit photographs or videos.
According to Scientific American, an American popular science magazine, online predators use these images or videos as blackmail to coerce their victims into sending them more sexually explicit material and keeping the abuse secret. Reports showed that they also threaten their victims, telling them they will send the photos to their parents if they don’t provide increasingly graphic images. At the same time, predators use online video applications to view and sometimes interact with the sexual abuse of children live.
Some countries such as the Philippines have become hubs for this kind of abuse over the past years. Poverty caused some parents to abuse their own children for profit. According to One News, an online site that helps you understand key issues and events in the Philippines, civil society organizations under the Child Rights Network (CRN) fear that the worsening economic situation during this pandemic may push adults to resort to peddling children to sexual predators online “due to the lucrative nature of these activities.”
“School closures and strict containment measures mean more and more families are relying on technology and digital solutions to keep children learning, entertained and connected to the outside world, but not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online,” Howard Taylor, Executive Director of the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, said.
Ian Stevenson, the CEO and founder of Edinburgh-based Cyan Forensics, said that their #GetHelpOrGetCaught campaign has become more relevant than ever. It aims to raise awareness against online sexual predators who groom and abuse children online. Stevenson reported seeing data and figures that point to a range of different dangers to children during this time. “That certainly includes traditional grooming activity which we are seeing online, but also issues of online harm such as children sexting each other and sharing imagery, which could well form the basis of future blackmail and makes them more vulnerable,” he said.
Protecting Children From Online Predators
Recently, UNICEF said that the increased and unstructured time online may not only expose children to potentially harmful content but also lead to heightened risk-taking, such as sending sexualized images. “We call on governments and industry to join forces to keep children and young people safe online through enhanced safety features and new tools to help parents and educators teach their children how to use the internet safely,” Taylor said.
Parents should make sure that they are well-aware of the risks of their children being online all the time. It will be helpful to also let your children be aware of situations like those so they will be cautious. You can discuss the risks of violence against children, including online sexual exploitation. Parents should also empower kids to feel safe by creating a confidential and non-judgmental culture to encourage them to discuss issues around sexual exploitation.
By opening up the conversation and educating children about the dangers of exploitation, parents can encourage them to report any cases of exploitation and abuse. Whether it is happening to them or to their friends, they know that they can always count on you. Ultimately, parents must prove to their kids that they can be trusted. In this way, they won’t hesitate to open up and ask for help.
While talking about the issues of sexual abuse and grooming with children is difficult, Stevenson said that these topics should be confronted. “Actually telling your children that there are individuals online that have bad intentions is how you keep them safe, so the conversations need to be approached and delivered in much the same way you’d tell your child to not get into a stranger’s car if they offer you a lift. That is especially important regarding sharing any pictures or videos, as in many ways the dangers are just as real,” he said.