Understanding Online Child Abuse

The internet. When it first entered our lives we were skeptical – how could something we didn’t really understand contain all the information we could possibly need? However, in the blink of an eye, we were hooked and now we can’t bear to be parted from the internet for very long, struck down by the fear of missing out on the next piece of news, social media trend or addictive app.

This FOMO induced dependency though sometimes means we don’t acknowledge the darker, more dangerous caves of the world wide web. Today, we’re looking under one of these sinister rocks and examining online child abuse.

Whether you’re a parent or not, we all want to keep children safe. They are not yet aware of the dangers of the world and can’t protect themselves as well as adults can, so we all look out for children and hope to prevent them from any negativity or exploitation. We warn them about stranger danger, teach them emergency numbers to call and encourage them to find a policeman if they ever get lost. But protecting them online is a more complicated process.

Before we get into the ins and outs of online safety, let’s understand what we mean by online child abuse. The NSPCC define it as “any type of abuse that happens on the web, whether through social networks, playing online games or using mobile phones”; which can include cyberbullying, grooming, emotional or sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. Not something anyone wants a child to have to deal with, but an unfortunate part of modern life.

In 2017, the Internet Watch Foundation found 78,589 individual web addresses worldwide showing images of child abuse; while Inhope reported a staggering 8.5 million reports of material showing online child sex abuse from 45 countries around the world. The United Kingdom may not be the worst offender compared to other nations but it still must be recognised that children in the UK are falling victim to online predators.

Children accidentally “friend” the wrong people, or a family member, friend or associate reach out online and encourage young people to act in inappropriate ways in return for either positive rewards such as presents, affection or money; or for threats to not be followed through. Either way the child is manipulated into acting in a way they should not: whether that is sexually, criminally or as a form of self-harm.

New advances in technology may have been what opened the portal to this new form of abuse for children, however it could also be what brings about new methods of safeguarding. Google are utilising a form of artificial intelligence to recognise images of child sexual abuse so that there is a more efficient way of removing such damaging content. In addition, automating the process has added benefits for those in social work, as it reduces the number of people who need to be exposed to psychologically strenuous imagery; caring for the mental health of social workers and related professionals as well as the children they protect.

So how can we stop these online abusers from exploiting our children? Stranger danger has become harder to identify and harder to control but we must make sure children are aware of the negative side of the internet as well as the joys of cat videos and the music of Ariana Grande. Perhaps we should focus on preventative methods that keep the danger away from children, like Google’s new AI venture, but how secure can we really make the internet? Is there a way to keep the online world safe if the inclination to exploit children is embedded in certain people’s psyche?

The alternative is educating children better: privately at homes and more openly in schools and communities. It may seem like depriving a child of their honest, innocent childhood if you have to tell them in detail about what they need to be worried about on the internet, but is that maybe the sacrifice we all need to make to protect the young people we care about?

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