When countries across the world went into lockdown to protect themselves against a virus that knew no borders, new opportunities multiplied for a crime that also knows no borders – online child exploitation.
“Like bees in a hive, gathering around the honey” is how Australia’s e-safety commissioner Julie Inman Grant described the increased activity of online predators as families were forced to retreat behind closed doors and live much more online. Offenders were hoping to capitalise on lonely children, cut off from friends, spending a lot more unsupervised time on the internet, as distracted parents tried to juggle work and home.
The Garda Online Child Exploitation Unit is now seeing a 29 per cent increase in traffic on sites being monitored on the dark web that are exclusively dedicated to online child exploitation and the distribution of child abuse material, according to a Garda spokesman in response to a query from The Irish Times. This jump in activity has come after little increase in online offending was observed during the first few weeks of the lockdown.
There has also been a 26 per cent increase in notifications of child abuse related material on social media sites being reported to the Garda unit by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the US, for the period March 1st to May 31st. NCMEC notifies the unit if a suspected case of child exploitation has any connection to this jurisdiction, whether that link relates to the victim or suspect.
Gardaí would encourage parents to talk to children about the types of platforms and sites they are accessing, and to check on webwise.ie for guidance in assessing the risks involved.
While indicators of increased risk and vulnerability are being closely monitored, any evidence of increased illegal activity in this area is unlikely to be available until later in the year, according to the Department of Justice and Equality. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan joined his European counterparts in discussion of the impact of Covid-19 in relation to online child abuse and child sexual abuse material at a recent meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council.
However, a department spokesman adds that figures from the national service for the reporting of online child sexual abuse material, Hotline.ie, show no significant increase for the first quarter of this year.
Ireland is one of 10 countries collaborating in research to find out if there has been an increase in cyberbullying and other types of online abuse since the start of the coronavirus lockdown. The study, titled Kids’ Digital Lives in Corona Times, is being co-ordinated by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.
Given that everybody is spending a lot more time online – offenders and potential victims alike – and that, internationally, reporting of abuse material has increased, it is natural to fear that child exploitation is on the rise.
"Until we verify what is really going on, we have to be careful how we talk about it," says Dr Tijana Milosevic, postdoctoral researcher at Dublin City University's Anti-Bullying Centre, which is undertaking research for the study here.
The centre will conduct both a survey and qualitative research, asking families whether there has been an increase in cyberbullying and other types of abuse online.
“We should not be presuming that just because children are using more technology that there will necessarily be an increase in cyberbullying,” says Milosevic. “This increased reporting may not be because there is more abuse – it could be but we don’t exactly know.
“Maybe more children have learnt to report because they are spending more time online,” she suggests. “Maybe more parents have also figured out ways to report.
“We have to be cautious about what type of abuse we are talking about – we don’t know what is going on until we have solid research,” adds Milosevic, who expects fieldwork on the study to start within days and the results, for Ireland at least, to be available in about two months’ time.
Child abusers have created and shared an online grooming manual describing ways to manipulate and exploit the increased number of children at home and online during Covid-19, Inman Grant told Guardian Australia. Latest available figures from her office indicate a 37 per cent increase in reports of child sexual abuse material in Australia for April 2020.
Inman Grant’s watchdog role in online safety is a model for what campaigners here want introduced in Ireland. The Children’s Rights Alliance is co-ordinating a campaign for child safety online to be a priority in the new programme for government.
The campaigning groups maintain that child safety online needs to be tackled on multiple fronts – across regulation, empowerment and enforcement – and they argue that the general scheme of the Online Safety Media Regulation Bill 2019, published by the Government just before the February election, does not go far enough.
While the Bill provides for the appointment of an online safety commissioner, as part of a wider media commission to oversee the new regulatory framework for online safety, it does not offer the prospect of rapid recourse for people who cannot get damaging material removed from an online platform.
"What we want is a regulator dealing with individual complaints, like the Australian model, because otherwise you are hoping for systemic change over time," says Alex Cooney, chief executive of CyberSafeIreland. "If it is the image of a child in a very vulnerable position, you want that removed yesterday, not having to go back and forth.
“It could be illegal content, or it just could be content that puts that child in a vulnerable place,” she says. “We need a mechanism whereby users who can’t get a platform to remove something have somewhere to go.”
She cites a recent case in which CyberSafeIreland was contacted by a teacher about a pupil who had been seriously bullied in a previous school over videos he had shot himself; the content was entirely innocent but had triggered bullying.
The boy had changed schools because of the bullying and then the videos started to re-emerge online. The teacher was concerned that new classmates might see the material and the boy himself was desperately afraid he might be targeted for bullying all over again, says Cooney.
CyberSafeIreland contacted the mother who told them she had been trying for two years to get the material removed from the social media platform. When the bullying started, she had promised her son she would get the videos removed in 24 hours. “Can you imagine how she felt that she simply could not get it removed?” says Cooney. “The argument was that it did not violate community standards.”
After intervention by CyberSafeIreland, the material was removed 10 days later. “But 10 days is too long,” she stresses, for a seriously distraught individual. “That is simply not acceptable.”
Our young adolescent boys are learning what consent looks like from porn. We have increases of teenage girls reporting sexual extremes that are really rough and painful
Cooney is also concerned that the proposed legislation is not going to cover content in private messaging platforms, for example WhatsApp. The argument is it is largely private communications between one individual to another. “But that is not how children use it,” she says. “Children use it in groups. I find it hard to accept that the law simply won’t cover that, as I know WhatsApp is used a lot in bullying cases.
“For me this Bill should be focused on the most vulnerable, ie, when it has gone terribly wrong. It should give them some hope of getting rid of that content, particularly for children, not blighting them for years to come.
“Unless we have more robust measures in place, you are going to rely on each platform’s self-regulation,” adds Cooney. “That is not acceptable in the long term.”
It is not only the increased risk of online targeting of children by offenders during the pandemic that concerns Cari, the national support organisation for children affected by sexual abuse. There is also the danger that children who spend more unsupervised time online are getting access to imagery that is beyond their cognitive ability to understand, says Cari's chief executive Eve Farrelly.
In their work they see children who are “saturated” with that kind of imagery presenting with sexually harmful behaviour, she says, “and you have children who are subjected to that behaviour by other children.
“Our young adolescent boys are learning what consent looks like from porn. We have increases of teenage girls reporting sexual extremes that are really rough and painful.”
The number of calls to Cari’s confidential helpline about online issues, such as teenagers seeing inappropriate porn and sharing sexual information, has increased in recent years. Farrelly believes this has continued to go up during lockdown, but says it’s too early for figures.
The majority of people who ring are parents, mainly mothers, and some are ringing about children who have been targeted through multiplayer online games.
Offenders capitalise, she says, on the generational gap between children who are “digital natives” and parents who are “digital tourists”.
“Every offender will do a risk assessment of a child to see how much of a risk they are to target,” she explains. “One of the things that they will ask is ‘do your parents monitor your phone?’.” This is something she would encourage parents to do more of, as “it is a protective tool, not an invasion of privacy”.
You want to start this conversation at three or four, to educate them to develop critical skills
Living through the pandemic has underlined the huge benefits of technology and social media, as Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance acknowledges, but "because we haven't made the online world safe, children are more likely to be exposed to risks". The current campaign has been pulled together to inform the programme for government, she says, and to highlight how online safety must be top of the list.
An awareness-raising campaign targeted at children and parents is very important, she says. Parents need to know not only about all the supports and filters available to help protect youngsters but also how to talk to their children about the risks.
“You want to start this conversation at three or four, to educate them to develop critical skills,” says Ward. If they see material that makes them uncomfortable or get a message asking them to do something they shouldn’t, they need to know they should tell a parent or some other trusted adult. “That is the goal you are always hoping for in child protection.”
She would like to see online providers be obliged to do a child safety impact assessment whenever they introduce a new programme or service, to avoid unintended consequences for the vulnerable.
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has added its voice to the online safety campaign and the need for effective remedies for removal of material because it sees the fallout from "the high level of distress and the permanent nature, in some ways, of the abuse", says its chief executive Noeline Blackwell.
While there are instances of sharing of images garnered through “upskirting and downblousing”, she says, the ones that cause such distress are where there is a breach of trust involved. “Images that were shared on a basis for which they were not originally intended. A form of abuse that is particularly relevant when a couple break up, it’s a huge breach of trust.
“The person who is calling us should not need to call us, there should be mechanisms in place at the companies to deal with it. All politicians understand there is a need for online safety,” she says. “Our concern is that what is proposed is too small and inappropriate to actually offer effective remedies to people.”
Even with restrictions being lifted, we are going to continue to live a lot more of our lives online than before, adds Farrelly. “The horse has bolted on this. Our safety disadvantages are advantages for offenders.”
Anybody who is worried about a child’s behaviour or what they might have been exposed to online can contact Cari’s confidential helpline 1890 924 567 to share their concerns.
What are the main online risks for children?
- Making explicit material (nude images and videos)
- Sexual coercion and extortion
- Accessing pornography and violent content online
- Games with gambling-like elements
- Costs of in-game spending
Garda advice to children and teenagers if they are being blackmailed or threatened in any way over online content is as follows:
- Don't panic: tell someone you trust about what has happened. You may find it embarrassing and scary but talking to your parent, teacher or another adult you trust can offer a great deal of support and advice.
- Report it to An Garda Síochána: this is a crime and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. Bring a friend or family member along with you for support.
- If you can't tell anyone you know: call Childline (by calling 1800 66 66 66; live chat on childline.ie or text 50101).
- Don't share more and don't pay anything: if you are asked for more photos or videos, don't send any more. Many victims who send money then get asked for more and, even if money is paid, the offenders may go on to post the explicit material anyway.
- Stop the communication: block the person and deactivate but don't delete the account, as this evidence will help gardaí.
- Keep the evidence: save messages, take screenshots and record any details you have.