From worries about job security, the economy and the health of friends and family, living through a pandemic is fraught with anxieties and stresses. But arguably, there are several opportunities presented by the current crisis too.
Remote working has inspired flexibility and catapulted digitalisation. Communities are pulling together and public sector innovation is thriving. It’s clear that the coronavirus presents a number of opportunities and challenges; something which exposes both the best and worst in humanity.
Cybercriminals fall into the latter category here; they’re skilled at exploiting vulnerabilities and have already capitalised on the pandemic.
It’s estimated that hacking and phishing attempts were up 37% in March 2020. In addition, as many adults turn to home working and children are educated through a screen, it’s feared that this increase in time spent online will expose them to harmful content.
Isolation measures are predicted to increase opportunities for cybercriminals, including sexual predators, to contact children who are spending longer periods of time online without supervision.
This may result in exposure to predators through the chat function on online games and even educational apps which are less secure. The threat of online grooming is also increased as criminals attempt to befriend children who are likely to be isolated and lonely during lockdown.
Online harm is also present between children too – there is an elevated inclination to sext and share explicit imagery could inform future blackmail which makes children vulnerable.
These dangers have been recorded by Europol, who found an alarming increase in online child sexual exploitation and the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), who estimate, pre-Covid, that there are at least 300,000 people who pose a sexual threat to children. Offenders have already been discussing how to target children in online forums so measures to protect children should be implemented immediately as those numbers may well have risen.
Protecting children during lockdown
Only 21% of parents perceived that child sexual exploitation could happen to their child or a young person that they know. Quite simply, this mindset can leave children vulnerable. Parents have a huge role to play when it comes to keeping their children safe online. It’s a matter to be taken seriously.
Before the subject can be discussed, it’s important that parents themselves are aware of the latest advice and guidelines for keeping children safe. The NCA has published several resources and online activities which can be completed with children to help parents teach them of the dangers.
Parents should familiarise themselves with the technologies their children have access to, particularly audio and video apps which can be used anonymously. An app may seem harmless but parents should be aware of any potential dangers, they might include links to download other apps or hidden messaging functions.
Conversations about the threat of interacting with people they don’t know on the internet should be and approached in the same way parents warn children against any physical ‘stranger danger’ they might encounter.
Additionally, schools need to be aware of the dangers children face whilst learning remotely. They should ensure that all online services they’re recommending are secure and teachers should consider children who may become isolated or particularly vulnerable during this time.
Collaboration and partnerships must be a priority
The dangers of exploitation through extended screen time during the pandemic also raises important questions for governments and tech companies.
The increase in child sexual exploitation online reported by Europol and the NCA is a trend being echoed elsewhere – Australia and Spain reported similar observations, with the latter recording a 25% increase in child sexual exploitation material downloads in March. Scotland Police’s latest campaign #GetHelporGetCaught is an example of a response to prevent child abuse escalating even further during the pandemic.
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This is a prolific, global problem, so collaboration is key as it cannot be tackled in isolation.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) called for closer collaboration between governments and tech companies, But encouraging these two groups, who often have differing priorities, to work together can be difficult.
Positive steps toward collaboration have also been made elsewhere – the Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTIA), a partnership uniting experts, charities and innovative companies who share the common aim of preventing online abuse, is spearheading the UK movement. OSTIA are currently producing an Introductory Guide to Online Safety to help those building platforms “build-in online safety from the outset” which is being informed by insights from government and civil society organisations.
Parents staying abreast of the latest guidelines and having constructive conversations on the dangers of online safety with their children is an important step in tackling online abuse.
Elsewhere, governments and tech platforms must do their part. Just as the coronavirus has directed fast track developments elsewhere, it could provide the impetus to address the growing threat by increasing dialogue between tech platforms and governments across the world. Whilst it can be complicated, working together in harmony will combat the dangers faced by children who need to spend increased time online during these unprecedented times.