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How to Keep Children Safe Online (update 20.09. 20)

View profile for Malcolm Underhill
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For the first few weeks following the government’s announcement of a coronavirus pandemic lockdown on 23 March 2020, not having to go to school, but staying at home, was a novelty and exciting children. Perhaps their parents too.   Not only can parents enjoy the time they have to play with their children, but also have a go at being teacher. However, the novelty may be wearing off and parents may also be finding that home schooling is not easy. As a consequence, parents can be forgiven for allowing their children spend more time online.

Risk of being Online

Whilst online resources can enhance a child’s education, the Internet is also a source of danger, perhaps more so during a lockdown when parents may be running out of ideas of how to entertain their children. There may be longer periods of unsupervised access online, with paedophiles looking to take advantage of children, through sexual extortion, grooming and sexual coercion. This is sexual abuse.

The risk of being online was illustrated in May 2020 when 27 people were arrested in connection with online child sexual exploitation in Bradford. As part of the arrests of men and boys, aged between 16 and 57, over 60 devices were seized. Detective Chief Inspector Alan Weekes said, “We urge parents and carers, particularly in the current climate where children are spending more time at home, to regularly monitor their children’s devices and report any concerns to the police or partner agencies, so these can be investigated fully”.

The Heightened Risk of Online Grooming

Figures published in May 2020 reveal the extent of online grooming over the last three years, following the introduction of legislation to make it illegal to send sexual messages to children. Over the last three years there have been 10,019 offences of sexual communication with a child, with the number of offences increasing, with 23% offences recorded in the 6 month period April 2019-October 2019.

In a further report published by the Internet Watch Foundation in July 2020, the number of reports of child abuse images online, increased by almost 50% during the Coronavirus Covid-19 Lockdown.

The Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation said, “"When you match that (people staying at home) with children being online for so much longer during the day, stuck at home, we suddenly have got the conditions for more child sexual abuse images to be generated”

The report reveals that in the 11 weeks from 23 March 2020, the Internet Watch Foundation logged 44,809 reports of child abuse images.

The National Crime Agency has said its intelligence suggested increased offending.

The problem with Facebook

These statistics are alarming. Worst still is that of the 5,784 offences where the means of communication was identified, 55% (3,203) of these were identified as Facebook, Messenger, Instagram or WhatsApp communications.    

Worryingly, the incidences of online grooming may get worse as Facebook has announced its intention to use end to end encryption of messages by default.   Facebook argue that this is being done to increase privacy and protect users from hackers.

It is strongly argued that these changes, which will affect Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp are likely to allow paedophiles to hide behind the encryption to groom and commit sexual abuse of children and teenagers. As Sir Mark Rowley, a former Assistant Commissioner at the Metropolitan Police has said, the decision by Facebook “will make it easier for criminals to flourish on their platform”.

Facebook response is to say that they are committed to building strong safety measures and “will continue to work with industry experts and law enforcement to combat criminal activity across all our platforms”.

This is unlikely to give sufficient comfort to parents and others with an interest in the welfare of children.      We know paedophiles are devious, who will use all methods at their disposal to hide their identity and manipulate children for their own sexual gratification. More must be done to protect children from online harm.  We need to see an Online Harm Bill placed before Parliament as soon as practically possible.

What is child sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse involves enticing a child to participate in a sexual activity, even when the child does not appreciate what is happening. Sexual abuse does not always involve physical contact, including penetration, masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching, but also non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or producing, sexual images, watching pornography, or encouraging, coercing children to behave in a sexually inappropriate way, including sexting. Technology can be used by paedophiles to facilitate child sexual abuse. Women and men commit acts of sexual abuse, as can children, upon other children.

Where does the online child sexual abuse material come from?

The Internet Watch Foundation, which is responsible for identifying and removing child sexual abuse material from the Internet, in Britain, reports that 90% of URLs for child abuse material are in Europe, the majority of which are in Holland. To be clear, the sexual abuse material is produced across the world but is held on computer servers in the Netherlands.

The Internet Watch Foundation report 89% of images in the last year were hosted in Europe, with 71% of the images around the world hosted in Holland. Less than 1% of images were hosted in the UK.

What is the risk of sexual abuse online during Covid 19?

Europol, Europe’s law enforcement agency, has reported that a number of countries across Europe have seen an increase in the number of attempts by paedophiles to access illegal websites, which feature child sexual exploitation material. Not only is the UK vulnerable to these evil people who seek out vulnerable children, but other countries too, including Spain and Denmark.

It is reported by campaigners that as a consequence of Covid 19 there has been a “global slowdown” in the removal of Internet child abuse images. The Internet Watch Foundation states that the tech firms have fewer staff to delete the obscene material.

Government funding

The government has recognised the need to support victim survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In September 2020 the government announced that it was doubling the financial support provided to national organisations that supported victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, to £2.4 million. The government said that it was awarding a two-year grant, to provide stability for the voluntary sector organisations, who were identified as facing increased demand for their services as a result of Covid 19.

The government said that this financial package was building upon “an unprecedented £76 million package of support to ensure the most vulnerable in society get the support they need during the coronavirus pandemic-which included 10 million to help victims of sexual violence access advice and support.”.

How to keep your child safe online

it is important to have regular conversations with your child, about staying safe online. Children should be given encouragement to speak to you or another adult, if they see something online which troubles them.

A parent should understand how to set up home filtering in a child friendly way and to apply age appropriate parental controls on digital devices.

There are a number of organisations (Thinkuknow, Childnet, ParentInfo and the NSPCC) which offer guidance and support on a range of issues such as setting parental controls, talking to your child about safety online, online porn and online games.

With some form of social distancing likely to last for the rest of the year (and possibly beyond), now is the time for parents to learn about online safety, to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse. There are many resources available and with some parents spending more time at home, they can use that time to educate themselves and their children to be safe. Investing time now will hopefully prevent a child coming to harm, through child sexual abuse.

Contact specialist child sexual abuse lawyers today

Contact our no win, no fee child-abuse solicitors now, for advice on how to make a claim for the harm caused by abuse, including online child sexual exploitation, or to simply consider what options and possibilities are available, without any obligation. Call us today on 0333 123 9099, email or fill in our online form.

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