Child safety online
Did you know that one in three Internet users in the world is a child? Children’s use of the Internet and mobile technology has increased significantly, mainly due to the shift from television to online viewing, the accessibility and popularity of mobile devices, and the use of technology as part of the educational system. For many children worldwide, the distinction between the online and offline world is no longer clear.
Access to the Internet presents many opportunities for education, personal development, self-expression, and interaction with others. Yet, an increasingly complex online environment also presents risks for the safety of children online. Children are especially vulnerable to the risks of the Internet, which include inappropriate content, harmful interactions, commercial issues, and overuse.
When it comes to promoting the benefits of technology for children while at the same time fostering a safe and secure online environment, stakeholders need to strike a careful balance between the need to safeguard children, and the need to respect children’s digital rights. The sections below tackle the security aspect of children’s use of the Internet.
Online risks for children and young people
Despite the many benefits of the Internet, children and young people – who are particularly vulnerable due to their age – face a number of risks, including:
- Inappropriate content, including age-inappropriate content (such as violent and sexual websites) and illegal content. Online games such as the Blue Whale Challenge have been used to provoke young adults to carry out a series of ‘challenges’ – some of which are life threatening – are particularly harmful;
- Inappropriate contact, including being the victim of bullying, grooming, and harassment;
- Inappropriate conduct, including sexting, self-generated explicit material that is shared with others, sexual harassment, and the bullying of others. Such conduct often leads to reputational damage;
- Commercial issues, including spam, hidden costs (such as in-app purchases), inappropriate advertising, and data collection which infringes on children’s rights; and,
- Overuse, including Internet addiction, as well as gaming disorders which are now considered a medical condition by the World Health Organization.
Online child sexual abuse and exploitation
While the issue of child sexual abuse is not new, the Internet has exacerbated the problem. One of the main reasons is that the Internet – particularly the darknet (an online space for content which is not normally picked up by search engines) – makes it easy to access child sexual abuse content and to make contact with vulnerable young people.
The online risks that children face may put them in situations in which they experience sexual violence of some form. Children can be exposed to predators, which can lead to grooming and online and/or offline abuse or exploitation. They can also themselves be coerced to become perpetrators of illegal activities. This can include situations in which children are persuaded to create and to share sexual images of themselves, which may then be used by others to harass them.
Child sexual abuse images (still commonly referred to as ‘child pornography’ in legislation) have continued to proliferate at ever-increasing rates. Much of the content that is circulating openly on the Internet is recirculated, older content; new content, which could indicate a new victim, is mostly found on the darknet.
A more recent trend in child exploitation is the commercialisation of child sexual exploitation through live distant child abuse (LDCA) – also referred to as on-demand child sexual abuse, or cybersex trafficking – through which perpetrators can direct abuse in real time. Payment is generally made through online payment methods; cryptocurrencies are used to a small extent, possibly because the number of perpetrators who utilise cryptocurrency may still be minimal.
When content depicting a child being sexually abused is discovered online, there are two clear priorities: to remove the content from public view, and to find the victim. But this is not always straightforward: Criminals have recently started using artificial intelligence (AI) technology to create ‘deepfakes’, a tool which allows them to swap the faces of victims in moving imagery, making the identification of victims more complex.
Addressing the challenges
There is no single solution that can mitigate the risks children face when using the Internet. Rather, a multi-faceted approach must be implemented to tackle the wide array of risks in a broad way. Such an approach combines:
- Policy, including legislation (one of the main instruments being the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child);
- Self- and co-regulation;
- The use of technical tools;
- Education; and,
The issues need to be tackled at both national and global level.
All stakeholders have a responsibility to ensure child safety online. Parents and educators have a responsibility to guide and to support young people, especially younger children, to use services that promote positive behaviours. They play an important role in education and awareness, which is considered an important first line of defence in mitigating risks.
Governments and industry have a responsibility to ensure that the online environment is safe and secure. Although industry has used many tools, such as filters and reporting mechanisms, it has recently been under pressure to step up its efforts to counter abusive content, including the live-streaming of child sexual exploitation.
Many professionals who are experts in the field are likely to be active in civil society, including non-profit organisations and research communities, and can provide invaluable input through knowledge and experience. Children-focused NGOs, child helplines, and healthcare professionals are also important stakeholders in the fight against child sexual abuse and exploitation – both online and offline – and are valuable partners in understanding the scale and nature of the problem and in providing counselling and support for victims of abuse.