March 01 2021

Online child sexual abuse during COVID-19. What do the experts say?

Dr Elena Martellozzo, Associate Professor and Criminologist at MDX, presents some of the key issues that were raised during the UKCIS webinar by high-level experts from research, policy and practice.

The risk to children of online sexual abuse, alongside other forms of online harm, is likely to have increased as a result of isolation measures, with children being educated and spending more time online.

Whilst we do not know the true impact of COVID-19, and the harm inflicted to children by offenders during lockdown, it is recognised that it’s an increasing problem and, as a result, needs to be addressed.

The online event was organised by the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group (UKCIS) and supported by the Marie Collins Foundation, the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) from Middlesex University and the University of East London’s Institute for Connected Communities (ICC) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Children online

It’s important to acknowledge that there are enormous benefits for children from being online. In fact, it is only through acknowledging those benefits that “we can better understand the potential for harm to children and seek to mitigate risk through robust research and through safeguarding policy and practice,” said Professor Julia Davidson OBE, Director of the ICC at the University of East London.

Little boy viewed from the back as he looks at a laptop set up in front of him

Supporting this ethos, Dr Jeffrey DeMarco, Senior Fellow with the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) and a Research Director at NatCen Social Research, said that “understanding offending, victimisation and the impact of child sexual exploitation and abuse on wider society is important in forging the best preventative measures moving forward.”

What’s being done to prevent this?

A number of vital changes are taking place in the digital environment to protect children and young people. Early this year the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has adopted  General Comment 25, which now extends children rights to the digital environment.

Furthermore, in the UK, the Online Harms Legislation  is due to be passed imminently, which places responsibility on companies for their users’ safety online, especially children and other vulnerable groups. This is the opportunity for companies and cyber safety technologies to step in and provide protection to its users.

In January 2021, the Home Secretary published the Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, which sets out the government’s vision for preventing, tackling and responding to child sexual abuse in all its forms, whether it’s committed in person or online, in families or communities, in the UK or overseas.

The aims of the strategy were set out clearly at the webinar by Victoria Jepson, Head of Strategy, International and Knowledge in the tackling exploitation and abuse unit at the home office.  Jepson claimed: “We have also made commitments around providing victims and survivors, with the support needed to rebuild their lives.”

Clearly a lot of work is taking place in this area, not only to support victims and survivors but also to prevent young people from further victimisation.

Has online abuse become the norm for digital children?

Dr Jo Bryce, Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, presented some of the findings from De-Shame, a project co-financed by the European Union. Bryce argued that whilst the internet plays an essential role in their lives, for many young people, online sexual harassment, unfortunately, is embedded in their digital lives and to some extent normalised and too often not reported to an adult.

Projects such as De-Shame are vital bringing voices of children to the surface. As Tink Palmer, CEO of the Marie Collins Foundation pointed out: “It is difficult for children to report what has happened to them.” There is evidence to suggest that often children fear the consequences of reporting such as being prohibited by their parents to access their devices and being online.

Dr Victoria Baines, a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University, highlighted the importance of utilising evidenced based data, as some sources are unreliable and do not provide “the true picture” of whether online grooming has increased in the UK due to COVID-19.  Baines argued: “We are assuming that being online is an inherently risky business, that more time online increases the risk of children, and as a consequence of spending more time online during lockdown, grooming in the UK has increased.” Whilst there has been an increase of online child sexual abuse, we cannot yet establish whether this increase is because of the lockdown.

Child sexual abuse is on the rise, offline and online

Talking about the increase of online child sexual abuse, more generally, Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations, offered frontline reports of the problem and presented some very strong evidence stating how “in 30 years we’ve moved from 7,000 to 17 million CSA images”. It was also highlighted that more than 850 offenders are being apprehended a month, and that more than 1000 children have been safeguarded each month through coordinated activity led by professionals like Mr Bailey.

Little girl with head in hand as she scrolls through an iPad while sitting at a table

This webinar highlights that online child sexual abuse is a crime that is not going to reduce any time soon.  In her closing comments, Mary Aiken, Professor of Forensic Cyberpsychology in the Department of Law and Criminology at the University of East London, argued: “Online CSA is a big data problem in terms of variety, velocity and volume of this content and we will need artificial intelligence solutions to tackle the problem.”

There is some good news, Aiken claims: “There is a thriving emerging online safety technology sector in the UK.” However, cyber security focuses on protecting data, networks and systems and not what it is to be human, online. Therefore, events such as this webinar bring together experts working in the field of child protection to present the research evidence and the reliable data needed to fully understand this complex phenomenon. 

Some of the evidence, advice and recommendations presented in this webinar cannot be ignored. The fact that more than 700 hundred people registered for this event demonstrates that people are willing to be involved in this subject, want to learn good practice, raise awareness and contribute to the online safety of children and young people.

 Indeed, we need to work together to create a safer cyber space for us all, but specifically for those young people whose lives are digital by default.

The UKCIS Evidence Group provides expert advice to the UKCIS Board and reviews key research in the Internet safety area. They produce a research highlights series which summarises research findings.

About the author

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. She has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena and her research includes exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse.

Dr Martellozzo is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. She has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) Bahrain (2016) and the Rwandan Government (2019) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

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