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Blog: Are you Cyber-Curious?

During this pandemic and national crisis, we have all been ordered to stay at home. Why? Because it’s the safest place to be right now. Those of us working from home can use the space it provides to tackle those tasks that can’t be completed in a busy office. As the safeguarding lead for a tech company, I’ve spent a few days immersed in the Internet Investigation Report published this month, which looks at online child sexual abuse. 

The 120-page document took a few days to read and digest, not because of the length, but the hard-hitting content. As a person who has worked in community safety and safeguarding for the last 20 years, I thought I knew what was going on and how bad it was but reading the latest statistics for online child sexual abuse has been truly shocking. I’m left feeling anxious and panicked, not by the pandemic, but of what could be the unintended consequences of this lock-down.  

During the voluntary isolation phase of this national crisis, I noticed my own social media usage increase to unhealthy levels, as well as my use of instant messaging platforms to communicate with friends and colleagues I would normally socialise with in person. 

School’s out

Now schools and most workplaces are closed, but nobody is actually on holiday. Homeworking parents will be expected to put in a productive 8-hour day, whilst home-schooling and supervising their children. That’s in addition to regular day-to-day tasks involved in feeding the family and maintaining a home. Conversely, other parents will have been laid-off from work which brings with it additional stresses and worries.  In this pressurised environment, we are all having to re-negotiate house rules and carve out space and quiet time. Right now, it would be understandable and even seem logical to relax some of the house rules. 

Children and young people will be missing their usual social interactions and (if they have a device) will be using social media platforms to compensate for this and stay connected with friends. But they will also be using the internet for schoolwork and entertainment; gaming, and chatrooms – there is going to be a substantial increase in their online presence too and we all just have to accept that. 

What all parents and carers need to know is that the internet is not a safe place for children and young people and there has been a rapid escalation in the number of children being groomed on the internet and, in particular, on social media platforms. Whilst online, our children and young people are being exposed to perpetrators who commit online‑facilitated sexual offences.

What all parents and carers need to know is that the internet is not a safe place for children and young people and there has been a rapid escalation in the number of children being groomed on the internet and, in particular, on social media platforms. Whilst online, our children and young people are being exposed to perpetrators who commit online‑facilitated sexual offences.

SGII

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) states that Self‑Generated Intimate Imagery (SGII) now makes up one‑third of the child sexual abuse material that it removes from the internet. Of that one‑third, 82% of the imagery features 11 to 13-year-olds, with the overwhelming majority featuring images of girls. In the first three months of 2019, the IWF found that 81% of Self‑Generated Intimate Imagery they took action on showed children between 11 and 13 years old, again, predominantly girls.

Over three months between August and October 2017, the IWF examined 2,082 images and videos. Its findings included that:

  • 96% of the children depicted were on their own, typically in a home setting such as a bedroom or bathroom;
  • 96% of the imagery depicted one or more girls; and 
  • 69% of the imagery depicted children assessed as aged 11 to 13 years old and 28 % depicted children assessed as aged seven to 10 years old.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) considers live streaming “one of the emerging threats”. The UK is “the third greatest consumer in the world of the live streaming of abuse. The report highlights that it is still possible to find child sexual abuse material (CSAM) (also referred to as Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE)) in just 3 clicks. That’s right, just 3 clicks. The number of sexual abuse images in circulation is now in the many millions.

Opening up about grooming and discussing the topic can be challenging because of the shame associated with it and parents themselves can feel that their child being groomed is somehow a reflection on them, their family, or their parenting skills, but only people who are not familiar with the devious tactics groomers use could ever think that way. The denial that it could ever happen to my child is what leaves so many children vulnerable. 

We need to move away from the thinking that online child abuse only occurs to children in families from socially deprived communities, or homes experiencing conflict and domestic violence, poor parenting skills or neglect. In their evidence to the Inquiry, the IWF stated they more frequently encountered images “involving white girls, apparently from relatively affluent Western backgrounds”. It can happen to any child who uses the internet unsupervised. 

So what’s being done to tackle it?

The British Government is now placing its efforts at the forefront of the global problem of online child sexual grooming and abuse. Last year the Home Secretary signed a UK–US bilateral data access agreement allowing UK law enforcement to request communications content and data directly from US‑based communications service providers. This will mean that data can be accessed in weeks, if not days. 

The Government also published the Online Harms White Paper in 2019 to “tackle content or activity that harms individual users, particularly children”. The white paper outlines plans to “make tech companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services”.

From September 2020, relationships education will be compulsory in primary schools in England, and relationships and sex education compulsory in secondary schools. Why? Because the we need to help children to understand what a healthy relationship is and to know when something is wrong and should not be happening to them – ultimately, it’s about protecting them. This is vitally important work if we are ever going to get ahead of the curve with this criminal activity and make up for time lost because society has been in denial about the problem of online abuse.

The 4 P’s

The NCA leads and coordinates UK law enforcement’s response to serious and organised crime. The response to online‑facilitated CSA is the particular responsibility of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), a command of the NCA. They also deliver an education programme known as ‘Thinkuknow’. The website provides educational resources – including films, cartoons and lesson plans – for children, their parents and teachers to stay safe on the internet.

Local Police Forces work with the NCA using the ‘4Ps’ approach of the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy: 

  • ‘Pursue’: pursuing offenders through the criminal justice system.
  • ‘Prevent’: preventing offending and reoffending while tackling threats from offenders and potential offenders.
  • ‘Protect’: seeking to increase the resilience of systems and infrastructure; and
  • ‘Prepare’: ensuring that those affected by serious and organised crime have the support they need.
How you as a parent can help: some suggestions

It’s comforting to know there are some things in place and in the pipeline but that won’t help us now while we observe this lock-down. So, what are we going to do to keep our children safe online, when not going online isn’t even an option? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. There are lots of useful tips to be found online but these are particularly relevant during lock-down.
    • When a laptop is not in use for video chat, cover the camera
    • Ensure children are dressed appropriately for video chat, in a suitable space within your home 
    • The bedroom or bathroom are NOT appropriate places for video chat
    • Be aware of what others can see in the background of your video call. Be conscious that people you do not know can see your room, home and others around you
    • Ensure that you and your child logs out completely after any video calls and if in doubt switch the laptop off and on after use. Do not accidentally leave you microphone, or camera switched on
    • Switch your devices off during the night and ideally leave them in a box in your kitchen
    • Be wary about your children communicating with their headphones on – if your house environment allows it, ensure their speaker is audible to you
    • Go to the Thinkuknow website: It’s packed with tips, information, guidance and videos for both parents and children
  2. Become Cyber Curious: Ask your child to teach you how to play the latest video game they are into or get them to show you how different Apps work and what they do. The reason we suggest you do this is to;
    • Learn about your child’s cyberlife and how they use the internet
    • Keep pace with your child’s rapidly changing world
    • Keep yourself up to speed on the latest Apps and how they work so you can identify risks ahead of time
    • Make conversations with your child about their phones and their online activities a natural and normal everyday occurrence.
  3. Agree a Family Contract: Keep in mind that these are extraordinary times we are experiencing and to get through the lock-down there is going to need to be some re-negotiation of rules. If you have not already done so, this is the perfect time to sit down with your family and come up with a contract / house agreement. Family contracts are a great way to foster and encourage positive, responsible behaviour in an atmosphere of mutual respect and responsibility. Teenagers engage enthusiastically in this process, so be warned, you may possibly get some interesting feedback and gain insights into your child’s view of the world. Providing you stick to whatever is agreed and enforce it, the family contract can actually strengthen the parent / child relationship. There are some great examples of contract templates you can use but be sure to make it fun. 
  4. During this lock-down phase, parents can download the SafeToNet App and install it on their child’s devices free for 60-days. It won’t show parents what your child is doing, who they are talking to or what they are saying because it respects their child’s right to privacy, but it will show parents an indication of their child’s risk levels in relation to their online behaviour. 

It’s an anxious time for everyone and the last thing anyone would want is to add to the stress by highlighting additional risks and threats to our loved ones, but the Internet Investigation Report makes it clear; the true scale of offending and the number of children who have been victims of online‑facilitated child sexual abuse is likely to be far higher than the number of reported offences.  We all need to take action to confront this problem, and this lock-down might be the best opportunity we have ever had to tackle it. 


Sarah Castro MBE, SafeToNet’s safeguarding lead

Having arrived in the UK as a child refugee from Uganda, Sarah Castro has seen first-hand the importance of safeguarding children. She currently works as Head of Safeguarding at cyber safety company SafeToNet, guiding their work in steering children away from cyberbullying, grooming, sexual abuse, and exploitation.  Sarah has helped SafeToNet to understand the dangerous underbelly of online behaviour and expose hidden predatory behaviour like radicalisation and the economy of grooming. 

Despite her work mostly taking place under the radar, Sarah’s advocacy for the underprivileged has won acclaim from a number of quarters, having been awarded an MBE, a Commendation for Exemplary Contribution from the Metropolitan Police, and a Guardian Public Service Award. 

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