Who Are We Afraid Of?
13 years ago, I got involved in the protection of children from online sexual exploitation. We had little in terms of tools and procedure, and most police forces did not have dedicated and specialised staff working this area of crime.
13 years later, we have many more specialised investigators around the world, sophisticated technology to help us detect and locate such exploitation, and… far more online abuse cases and victims: far more applications, social media platforms and online games are available; far more children are online and at a younger age.
Anyone working to enforce this area of crime cannot escape the feeling that despite increasing investment by governments, we are only reaching the tip of the iceberg. The extent of inter-net facilitated child sexual exploitation is just overwhelming.
Many good people are working on improving the tools for prevention and detection of child sexual exploitation online, and for identification of offenders and victims. Artificial intelligence, among other technologies, is looked to as a technology that might aid detection of offending on different platforms and aid investigators, in the face of the massive amount of child sexual abuse, its images and its videos, that is online and on offenders’ devices.
While 13 years ago children had to sit at a computer at home to get online, now the internet is in their hands or pockets constantly. While 13 years ago few children, of whom were predominantly teenagers, were online and exposed to risks of being groomed into exploitation or being sexually extorted, today it is more and more common to investigate cases of children, eight years old and at times even younger, active online and running accounts on Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Kik, Musical.ly† and numerous other services and applications available to them on their smartphones.
In 2018, providers of online services, such as the above, based in the USA alone, reported 18 million incidents where they suspected child sexual exploitation or crimes against children were taking place.
Eight-year-old children have no ability to protect themselves from the temptations, manipulations and dangers the open web poses for them; nor do ten-year olds or 12-year olds. A huge and international ‘army’ of child sexual predators are present on pretty much any internet platform kids frequent. The internet is a paradise for those predators, a vast gallery of children they can pray on.
The extent of the danger is alarming, and the number of child victims impacted is overwhelming. Children are commonly victim of crimes ranging from sexual harassment and exhibitionism, to sexual extortion, rape, and suicide incitement online.
Numerous wonderful investigators are working restlessly and successfully to detect and arrest offenders sexually abusing children online. We will continue doing this and continue developing cutting-edge tools to aid us. But this is often after some victims have been harmed, and this is a continuous chase.
It is clear that we have no way of effectively assuring children’s safety online, and the above numbers speak for themselves. Parents are not equipped or able to protect their children online, even if they understand that they should. Law enforcement is unable to do it either, and will only get to a fraction of the many offenders and victims. Nor is industry, despite some growth in effort and reporting, able to assure children’s safety from avoiding mental and bodily harm on its platforms.
There is, however, one obvious way in which we can effectively protect those children: the same one used in relation to other environments or practices dangerous to children. It is not to let them go there.
We would not give a knife to a child, and certainly not without supervision, as they are neither mature nor responsible enough not to hurt themselves or others. We limit the age at which a teenager may drive a motorcycle or car to an age where they are judged to be mature and responsible enough to not create risks to themselves and others. We set clear limits and do not allow children to buy cigarettes or alcohol, or to enter nightclubs. We set these laws and limits to protect children, to protect their wellbeing, their health, and their bodies. Often to the kids’ discontent, but for their own good. Paternalistic? Yes, and in the most basic sense of the word. It is our obligation as society, as adults and as parents.
Why is it that we allow the same immature, naive, vulnerable kids, to go effectively unsupervised, into the dangerous alleys of the internet, where we know they are likely to be harmed in horrible ways?
Allowing your child to go online, open accounts and communicate with others is the equivalent of sending them downtown to walk the streets and interact with whomever they come across: chat to them, hold their hand, perhaps see what their sexual preferences are. In a way it is even worse, as online they never really know with whom they are talking or experimenting sexually with as predators may have any face: a boy, a girl, a model, a soccer star, a friend, and so on.
The argument that the internet opens and exposes the world to your child, ignores the grim fact that it actually opens and exposes your child to the world.
Now, we tell ourselves, ‘but I talk to my child, I explain those dangers to them, I warn them, they understand, they would never…’. Would you give your ten-year old the kitchen knife, explaining the danger, and then leave them to use it unsupervised? Send them up to their bedroom to play with it?
In the last few years, my colleagues and I have visited hundreds of homes where a child has been a victim of sexual violence online, including being forced to insert objects into their genitalia (which under legislation in some jurisdictions constitutes rape), or living under sexual blackmail for years. Does anyone think their parents imagined that? Thought this was likely to happen to their kid? These kids look like your kid, and their parents like us. You cannot open the “door” to the vast internet for your child and expect them not to walk through it.
Smartphones and tablets have largely become our babysitters: producing hours of wonderful quiet, while our children stare and interact with those screens. No need to entertain them, no need to go out: they love it in their room.
Those endless screen hours come at the expense of parent-child interaction, relation, creation, attention.
Putting all the above aside for a second, we are exposing our kids to extremely violent material (beheadings, snuff‡) and above all, pornography. A week ago, I talked to a very informed and able friend. She told me that they have installed parental controls on their 11 and 14-year-old sons’ smart phones and now limit them to two hours of internet per day. That is 14 hours per week. A full day, from wake to sleep, of screen-time and exposure. She also said that they were struggling to limit the younger one’s consumption of pornography, which started when he was about nine. One can only imagine how the gender perception of an 11-year-old who has been watching pornography for years develops.
What I have found in so many families, in whose lives I unwillingly found myself involved, was a social and parental meltdown. Parents afraid to set rules, afraid to separate their children from their smartphones: even in the face of a police officer home visit. Parents who sit in the living room, unaware of the horrors their child is experiencing in the next room. Parents whose first goal was to obtain the smartphone back from police as their child screams for it. The phone which served to violate their child.
There is some progress. Some schools now remove smartphones from pupils during school time. Some parents roll back to ‘stupid phones’, allowing children texting and calling functions, but no more.
These measures and take-up, however, remain few in number: both the number of schools and the few brave and invested parents. It is high time for government and society to act on their commitment to protecting children: guiding parents and placing responsibility on whoever puts a child at internet-risk.
Governments and society should stop the unacceptable situation where companies, who create dangerous internet environments, accessible to children who are then offended against and harmed, are not held accountable for thecrimes they are effectively enabling and facilitating against children. We demand that businesses who operate environments which are dangerous to children ensure that children do not have access to them, or can only enter accompanied by an adult. A bar allowing a child to consume alcohol would be held accountable; a public pool allowing unsupervised access for children would be accountable; failing to install a railing high enough to protect children from falling would render a constructor accountable for an injured child.
It is unacceptable that internet industry operates and profits from platforms which put children at harm, without being held accountable. If they cannot ensure children’s safety, they should not allow children onto their platforms. If they do not have effective mechanisms to keep children off their dangerous platform, they should not be allowed to operate it altogether.
Industry, which would obviously not want to let go of children as its consumers and targets of massive advertisement campaigns, could focus on developing child-safe phones, which would simply not allow access to types of platforms deemed unfit and unsafe for children. Phones would allow controlled communication, and minimise, if not eliminate, exposure to risks.
The age at which youth are deemed responsible and mature enough to understand the risks and act accordingly can be discussed and defined by relevant professionals. There certainly is such an age, under which they are not. Relevant professionals can also discuss and define the types of communications a child can use in safety.
Setting such limits to children’s access to the internet would actually constitute true protection of children’s privacy: protection from the inherent exposure of their personal details and being to the world. Allowing a child unsupervised access to internet platforms and accounts is not ‘respecting their privacy’: it is effectively ‘respecting’ their absolute loss of it.