The various lockdowns which have occurred around the world during the pandemic have meant that both children and the perpetrators of online child sexual abuse have had more time at home with access to connected devices. The portability of modern devices and growth in smart phone ownership means that many children have spent time online, without adult oversight.
The 2020 annual report of the Internet Watch Foundation shows that this situation has been exploited by predators with a large increase in recordings of children being groomed in their own bedrooms.
The IWF reported a 77% increase in 2020 compared with the previous year, of web pages displaying “self-generated” child sexual abuse imagery, with most of the victims being 11-13 year old girls. Self-generated imagery (SGI) is created by children themselves using their smartphones or webcams at the behest of others, potentially thousands of miles away, who groom, coerce or manipulate them into creating and sharing sexual imagery of themselves. The IWF noticed a new trend for SGI to sometimes involve siblings, often with an older child directing a younger child’s behaviour, following instructions from an adult online. The videos they analysed were usually filmed in a room in a family home, sometimes with adults audible behind the close doors, apparently unaware of what was happening.
To address this growing risk, the IWF have launched a campaign to raise awareness amongst parent and encourage them to have conversations with their children. Their gurlsoutloud.com movement aims to empower young girls to recognise when they are being targeted and to use the tools available online to block the perpetrator, report their behaviour and tell a trusted adult.
It’s really important that parents get involved with their children’s online activities, to understand the risks and to help them recognise when online behaviour is inappropriate. Groomers can be skilled at exploiting young people’s emotions and any child can be at risk. 11-13 year olds are often just embarking upon social media use and many of these platforms are used by groomers to make contact, often then moving youngsters to other, encrypted platforms, in order to avoid detection.
The answer is not to ban children from the internet – a managed exposure to some risk is important for developing their digital resilience. It is however, important to make children aware of the risks and how to recognise the warning signs. If parents or carers explore the platforms their child wishes to use alongside them, they will be able to help them respond appropriately to risks, show that they understand the issues and encourage children always to tell them if something worries them. Agreeing some ground rules about where and when devices can be used is also a good idea, and easier to implement early on before other habits have been established.
Responding appropriately and giving children the opportunity to tell is also important. It can be shocking to hear that your child has been approached online and worse still if they have been exploited, but keeping calm, listening, being supportive and reminding children that they are the victim and are not to blame will help them to tell and to cope. Tell them in advance that you will always be there to support them but also let them know that you won’t mind if they find it easier to talk to a confidential helpline.