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Protecting Children Online During COVID-19: Recognising and Reducing the Threat of Online Sexual Abuse

Protecting Children Online During COVID-19: Recognising and Reducing the Threat of Online Sexual Abuse

11 May, 2020
Tink Palmer MBE

The Marie Collins Foundation (MCF) is a child protection charity which works to ameliorate the impact of online child sexual abuse and related offline abuse. COVID-19 presents many challenges to families, to us, our funders and partner agencies across the world. We foresee that our services will be in higher demand than ever because of this unprecedented crisis and we must continue to be in a position to respond and ensure that children are safeguarded. With more young people online at this time, it is paramount that we ensure, firstly, that they are not drawn into posting self-generated sexual images and, secondly, that they report anything of concern.

As ever, in the field of child protection, we can only properly safeguard children through working in partnership. The MCF values the large “partnership family” that we have developed over the years and if there was ever a time that such a partnership is needed, it is now. These are unprecedented times when children are especially at risk, particularly due to the lack of direct contact with their schools and their friends.

‘Housebound’ children inevitably seek solace and more contact with their peers online, creating new opportunities for those wanting to sexually abuse children online. With more children spending more time on devices, it must surely be the case that those intent on grooming vulnerable young people will up their game, seeing the situation as an opportunity to exploit. Prior to COVID-19, a 2019 Ofcom study found that children aged 5-15 typically spend an average of just over two hours online a day. In the same year, a report by Cybersafe Ireland urged the government to introduce a long-term strategy on children’s online safety, noting that 43% of the 3,867 children they surveyed were talking to people online that they didn’t know in real life.

How can we work with at risk communities during COVID-19?

We anticipate an increase in cases of online abuse, in line with usual increases seen typically during school holidays when children spend more time on devices. To help address this we, with support from our Survivor Group, have produced a guide – Learning Through the Lockdown – for children, their parents and the wider community.

More broadly, we work in the UK and internationally to offer a range of services which include assessments and interventions for those children (and their parents and family members) impacted by sexually abusive behaviour online.

Despite the current restrictions imposed by COVID-19, there are many things we can do to continue to respond to the needs of vulnerable children. These include:

  • Support services to children and their families;

  • Consultancy to professionals who may already be concerned about a young person’s welfare;

  • Advocacy;

  • Public education;

  • Education and training – whilst all training events, up to and including our international conference in June 2020, have been postponed we expect to be able to run these events in the autumn of 2020. Over the past year the MCF has been developing online training tools. We plan to continue with these developments and to make them available in a timely manner;

  • International work – our planned partnership work with colleagues in other countries will continue. Whilst the cessation of all international travel is in place, with the resultant hold on country visits, we are working remotely with our partners to maintain the development of our work programmes. Our Global Protection Online Network platform is a priority and is on schedule to go live and be available to safeguarding professionals by the beginning of July 2020.

Young Men Online 

Our work with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and UK Government to help educate and empower young men to stay safe online is also continuing. As the lockdown progresses, social isolation begins to impact further and tedium sets in, it’s feared that young men may let down their guard and take risks online. The extra time at home may increase the temptation to explore the online world further and venture into previously undiscovered areas, including spending more time looking at porn.

Young men already make up the largest proportion of pornography consumers. A survey for the BBC in March 2019 showed that over three quarters (77 per cent) of 18 to 25-year-olds viewed x-rated content in the month before the survey. Since they are likely to be spending more time online, in some cases on platforms that may contain sexual images and videos of under 18s, they could be at increased risk of breaking the law.

Young men have been shown to have a gap in their knowledge when it comes to the law surrounding viewing sexual content. A survey of 18 to 24-year-old young men carried out by Ipsos Mori found:

  • More than a quarter (26 per cent) of those surveyed didn’t think that sharing, viewing or downloading sexual images was illegal if the young people featured were aged 16-18;

  • 17 per cent didn’t think it was illegal if they were under 16;

  • Nearly half (49 per cent) said that not knowing where to report was the main barrier that would stop them reporting indecent images of children.

Our campaign urges them to report any sexual images of under-18s they come across online. Reporting can be done quickly, easily and anonymously to the IWF at iwf.org.uk clicking on the reporting portal and sharing the URL of the indecent content viewed. The IWF can use this information to not only have the content removed and to assist in identifying the location, identity or age of the child featured, allowing law enforcement partners to safeguard them. To young men, I say keep yourself safe, don’t risk becoming an offender and do the right thing.

We must all play a role in safeguarding

It is always worth reminding people that online sexual abuse is not a victimless crime – behind every image is a real child. Unfortunately, some people mistakenly believe that because the internet puts distance between the victim and perpetrator that the harm is somehow reduced. In fact, online sexual abuse can lead to victims experiencing deep and long-lasting harm, with every share or view of their image repeating the harm again and again. For those who are old enough to understand what has happened to them, the lack of control they feel about their image being out there in the online world is deeply distressing and the impact can last for many years.

Safeguarding is a shared responsibility. Everyone, including young adults, has a role to play in protecting victims from harm and we can all help to make the internet a safe place for children and young people. With more young people online at this time, it is paramount that we ensure, firstly, that they are not drawn into posting self-generated sexual images, and, secondly, that they report anything of concern.

We at the MCF have set out our plan to enable us to step up to the mark to ensure we do our best to safeguard children from sexual abuse. We can only do this by continuing to maintain our partnerships and us all working together to protect children.

  • For further advice, or if you have concerns that a child you know may be at risk or needs support following online sexual abuse, you can contact the MCF at help@mariecollinsfoundation.org.uk

  • If you have concerns about your own or someone else’s behaviour online and need help and support you can contact the Stop it Now! Helpline anonymously at stopitnow.org.uk.

Tink Palmer MBE is the founder and CEO of the Marie Collins Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necassarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution. 

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