Since the lockdowns began to be implemented all over the world in March 2020, more children and youth started spending almost all of their time online. Whether for school, social media, or for Netflix, screen time has increased considerably, and even parenting articles advised parents to re-think how their children interact with technology.
One unfortunate consequence of children and youth spending more time online, often unsupervised because parents have to be working remotely themselves, is the spike in online child abuse.
In the United States alone, online child abuse complaints surpassed 4 million. There are now literally millions of children being victimized online and law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep up.
Why children are more vulnerable
According to Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, children are more exposed to predators during the COVID-19 lockdowns because they may:
- “be more exposed to offenders through online gaming, the use of chat groups in apps, phishing attempts via email, unsolicited contact in social media, and through less secure online educational applications;
- be more inclined towards making explicit material to exchange with peers;
- become lonely and isolated, which offenders may try to benefit from, connecting with them to produce explicit material or to arrange a meeting in real life once restrictions are lifted.”
ECPAT, a global network of NGOs combating the sexual exploitation of children, also published a detailed article in April about how COVID-19 was increasing the exposure of children to online predators, particularly marginalized and low-income ones. Children and youth locked in with abusive family members were also a concern, as well as the swift adaptability of predators to new conditions imposed by the pandemic.
By mid-May, Europol’s executive director Catherine De Bolle had access to enough information to know that there was definitely a spike. According to Reuters, “the rise in pedophile activities was reported by national law enforcement authorities from the 27 EU states who saw higher access to illegal websites and shut more online platforms for the exchange of child sex material”.
Also in Australia, a dangerous scenario has been uncovered by authorities, according to the Australian e-safety commissioner. There are many more reports of child online sexual abuse and authorities discovered a manual created by child predators to groom and manipulate children and youth during the pandemic, exploiting their vulnerabilities.
Teen dating violence and cyberbullying
Pedophiles are not the only concern of children and youth stuck at home, depending on the internet to interact with their peers. As relationships are forced to go online overnight, so is intimate partner violence between adolescents. Perpetrators of teen dating violence may not have physical access to their victims, but continue to stalk them online, sending threats and even practicing extorsion.
Considering how the pandemic has a debilitating effect on the mental health of adults, young people, and children, being stalked online by an angry ex or current boyfriend can still be traumatic and many teens might find that their parents will not be the solace they need for emotional support.
Children and young people who are cyberbullied may also find themselves increasingly isolated. In order to continue their studies, turning off the screens are no longer a possibility, so cyberbullied children and youth have no choice but to continue using the internet and risk being the victims of abuse and ridicule.
What can we do?
Experts from international organizations and law enforcement agencies are strongly urging parents to talk with their children about the dangers of the internet and what constitutes online abuse. But it can be difficult to discuss the limits of what is or isn’t “appropriate”.
For example, “sexting” – sending nude pictures – is becoming a common practice among teens. A popular teen magazine referred to sexting as an almost empowering thing, as long as each partner consents to it. But since that is not always the case and female sexuality is still much more policed than male sexuality, it has led to the suicide of teenage girls due to “slut-shaming” and the progressive ideals of teens exploring their sexuality freely are easily exploited by online predators. These kinds of contradictions can make it difficult for parents to have honest conversations about the limits of online activity and the long-lasting damage of revenge porn and similar forms of image-based sexual abuse.
It’s important for parents and educators to keep an eye out for the online activities of children and young people, discuss the potential dangers involved and encourage them to speak up if they feel uncomfortable. Being nonjudgemental and empathetic is extremely important to ensure children and youth feel safe in disclosing cases of abuse to parents or other authority figures in their lives. As the author, Shafia Zaloom wrote ” If teenagers find themselves in a sexual situation that is uncomfortable and unwelcome, let them know that you will suspend judgment and respectfully listen. Let them know that you are available to talk, even if the conversation is awkward or difficult”.
UNICEF advises parents to “[e]nsure children’s devices have the latest software updates and antivirus programs; have open dialogues with children on how and with whom they are communicating online; work with children to establish rules for how, when, and where the internet can be used; be alert to signs of distress in children that may emerge in connection with their online activity, and be familiar with school district policies and local reporting mechanisms and have access to numbers of support helplines and hotline handy”.
The UN agency also highlights the roles of government, schools, and the information technology industry, including social networking platforms, in ensuring children’s rights are protected online. As children and youth are confined to their homes, which may or may not be abusive environments, it’s up to all of society to pay attention to the most vulnerable to exploitation.
Unfortunately, many children and young people are already facing the devastating and traumatic consequences of online abuse. The pandemic demonstrated how the internet is still not a safe space respectful of children’s rights and how predators roam free. It has also led to more arrests, uncovering more offenders, but at the cost of children’s rights and wellbeing.