COVID effect left world’s children more vulnerable online

COVID effect left world’s children more vulnerable online

There has been an increase in reports of online child sexual exploitation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Shutterstock.

COVID-19 impacted the ability of frontline professionals to deal with online child sexual exploitation (OCSE) despite an increase in investigations, a UNSW Sydney report has found.

The research surveyed frontline and specialist law enforcement OCSE professionals from around the world and was funded by the Australian eSafety Commissioner.

The majority of professionals reported increases relating to child sexual abuse material, online grooming, activity in online abuse communities, online risk taking by minors, and live streaming of abuse material during the pandemic, the report said.

Major increases in OCSE reports and investigations were not matched by increased victim identification and victim support efforts, which remained at pre-pandemic levels. Working from home and other COVID-19 safety measures were also particularly challenging for professionals engaged in investigations work, managing sensitive or illegal content, and who were reliant on multi-agency collaboration.

The research provides crucial data as OCSE professionals try to come to grips with new work arrangements in the COVID-19 world and the post COVID-19 world, lead author and UNSW Associate Professor of Criminology and expert in child sexual exploitation Dr Michael Salter said.

“It’s concerning that as online risks to children increased during the pandemic, professionals struggled to maintain their existing outreach and prevention efforts,” he said. 

OCSE professionals also reported a lack of robust statistical measures of OCSE offender behaviour and child risk as a key constraint when assessing the impact of COVID-19 on online child safety and offender behaviour.

The findings highlight the need for an adaptive and crisis-prepared child protection system, A/Prof. Salter said.

“OCSE stakeholders need to be integrated into the planning of child protection responses to crises and pandemics in future,” he said.

“We also need to see an increase to transparency and accountability measures for technology companies in the prevention, moderation, and reporting of OCSE, as well as develop robust measures of offender and child behaviour online.”

Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said the report’s global findings of increases in reports and investigations involving child exploitation material online during the COVID-19 pandemic mirrors what we have seen in Australia.

“eSafety saw significant spikes in all forms of online harms in 2020 compared to 2019, including a 90 per cent increase in illegal content, the majority of which involves child sexual abuse material,” Ms Inman Grant said.

“This report also highlights the frustration felt by many investigators around the world around the lack of safety protections online platforms have in place to protect children from harm.

“This is a real focus of my office and eSafety has been working with all the platforms on something we call Safety by Design, an initiative to encourage tech companies to build in basic safety protections to prevent all forms of online harm from happening in the first place.”  

The findings of the study relate to the global OCSE response and are not specific to any one jurisdiction. The report findings were drawn from responses from specialist frontline professionals from the Australasian region, North America, Europe, the UK, Africa and Middle East. It is based on a survey of specialist law enforcement and OCSE agencies with follow-up interviews. Associate Professor Michael Salter and Dr Tim Wong at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture co-authored the report. The research was funded by the eSafety Commissioner.

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