The Other Pandemic: Online Child Abuse

The power of collaboration can be extraordinary. Let me give you an example that will resonate with you all. Right now, the world is working together on an unprecedented scale. It is tackling covid with formidable force and energy. 

Vast numbers of scientists are working around the world sequencing the virus’s genome, learning how it mutates and spreads. Their research is available online allowing all virus trackers and scientists to intensify their fight. This is urgent. Very urgent. They share their research, their findings and most importantly their data. This sense of collaboration and openness has allowed these brilliant scientists to develop vaccines in less than a year. 

And crucially it hasn’t required legislation to make it happen. Common purpose and laser focus has led governments and private enterprises to work together, aligned in their mission.  

So why doesn’t that same collaborative verve and drive exist to eradicate online child abuse?

UNICEF estimates there are over 750m children online. They are vulnerable because they are naïve and easy to trick; they are vulnerable precisely because they are children. Indeed, over a third have seen inappropriate violent and sexual content. That’s more than 225m children – over twice the number of people that currently have Covid. So, there can be no doubt that online abuse is a significant pernicious global issue.

The problem is that common purpose just does not exist. The world isn’t pulling together to eradicate this problem. It isn’t acting as one. Manufacturers, telecoms and online platforms are simply not designed with child online safety in mind. 

Dollars yes – but safety no. 

Their commercial interests do not align with keeping children safe online. Forthcoming legislation announced in particular by the UK Government must be welcomed and championed, but it’s going to take too long to enact. 

There is no time to lose. We must shift the narrative now using technology and market dynamics to change the commercial landscape so that interests do finally align. We can do this by giving parents a choice when they buy a phone for their child. If it doesn’t have safety technology – don’t buy it. You can bet your bottom dollar that device manufacturers and telecoms will soon change their tune when their business dries up.

I regard smartphones as one of the most dangerous weapons known to man. Young children can see, hear, say and do anything and can be reached by anyone at any time, and as such are susceptible to predation and harm the moment they switch that phone on. But we can change all of that. 

Imagine technology that ensures a phone is ‘safe out of the box’. Imagine a world where harmful videos, images, audio and text are filtered in real-time and before any harm is done. Imagine if that technology was available today. 

Well, the great news is that it is. 

SafeToWatch uses AI in real time to contextualize activity on a child’s device and filters harmful content before it’s seen. It can prevent both the consumption and production of violent and sexual content in live-streamed video, in the moment. Imagine that – a child can no longer be coerced into performing sexual acts to camera. 

And the software does all of this running on the device without the need of “the Cloud”. It runs on any device including smart phones, tablets and laptops. The SafeToNet keyboard can also detect bullying and sexting behavior, in addition to issues of low self-esteem and anxiety. It can be embedded in games, social networks, messaging apps and chat rooms. 

Don’t let anyone try and convince you that online harms are a social issue that cannot be fixed by technology – it can. The accuracy of SafeToWatch is improving all the time as we increasingly feed it more training data. But it still needs much more of that data to improve its efficacy and to safeguard children online more effectively. 

As such, we want to collaborate with anyone that has access to sensitive and harmful content including video, imagery and text, and who would like to join forces with SafeToNet to further train our algorithms. We know that data is held by Governments, security agencies, NGOs and of course the platforms themselves. Please work with us now. 

SafeToNet will make SafeToWatch available for others to integrate into their platforms and hardware. I am calling all handset manufacturers, telecoms, social networks, gaming apps and chat rooms to step up. Your legal duty to safeguard children is nigh but your moral duty is now. The sooner we collaborate the sooner this technology can be deployed to the general public. 

Let’s work together now. If we do so, then within a year we will have a universal technology to fight against online child abuse.


Richard Pursey,

Group CEO SafeToNet

Richard is a serial entrepreneur with a background in behavioral analytics having successfully started and sold a number of technology companies. Prior to co-founding SafeToNet, Richard spent time working in the voluntary sector and would drive children suffering from cancer to hospital for treatment. He learned much by talking to the children about their lives and in particular their online experiences. Richard also previously served on the board of the West Berkshire NHS Primary Care Trust, where he was exposed to the brutal reality of being a child in today’s online world and the mental health issues associated with online harms. 

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