Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
During the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, ‘stay at home’ measures have paid significant dividends in reducing disease contagion and rates of infection in areas where they have been heeded. While such measures should continue to be encouraged until it is safe to venture out, they have simultaneously been matched with increased risks to children of online sexual exploitation.
Online activity and increased risk to online sexual exploitation
Following worldwide lockdown measures and attendant increases in screen time on the part of children, there have been significant increases in reports of the suspected online sexual exploitation of children – a term denoting the third-party engagement of a child in online sexual activities. Such activities could include an online predator encouraging and receiving from a child a sexually explicit image which is then distributed to child porn groups. The online sexual exploitation of the child could likewise involve the use of an initial sexually explicit image sent by the child as a tool to threaten him/her into sending additional photos and/or money or else face the risk of the exposure of such images to family, friends and/or other members of the public. The risks posed to children from online exploitation during the Covid-19 pandemic have been compounded by a reduced capacity of technical staff to monitor and respond to both real and potential cases, as some content moderators work from home.
As seen in a U.S. context, the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) is said to have recorded a 106% increase in suspected cases of child sexual exploitation (via CyberTipline reports) when March 2019 and March 2020 reports were compared. Canada has similarly seen a spike in online reporting with its online sexual exploitation of children tipline – Cybertip.ca – recording a 6.6% spike in reports in April when compared to the three previous months. While such figures are not representative of actual confirmed cases of online child sexual exploitation or the extensiveness of the online risks posed to children from around the globe, they do show an alarmingly higher reporting pattern than other reporting periods, demonstrating increased possibilities for the exploitation of children. Serving as a complement to the increased reporting of the online sexual exploitation of children has been evidence of the increased demand and access to sexually explicit content featuring children. The Indian Child Protection Fund (ICPF), for example, has reported that following the imposition of restrictive lockdown measures on March 23, 2020, there was an increased search for online content using featured words and phrases such as “child porn”, “sexy child” and “teen sex videos” between March 24 and March 26, 2020. The European law enforcement agency, Europol, has likewise indicated a rise in those seeking child abuse material online.
Shared responsibility for the online security of children
The right of the child to protection is enshrined in international law, most notably under the landmark child rights convention – the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – under which most states are legally bound. Amidst other specific expressions in favour of the protection of the child, an unmistakable balance has in some instances been made between a recognition of the duty of the state towards children, and a recognition and consideration of the role of parents in the care, maintenance, and upbringing of the child. For example, Art 3(2) of the CRC states that “States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her…”. In light of the current pandemic and the increased risk of children to online sexual exploitation, the international legal juxtaposition of the protective duties and considerations of states towards children and the responsibilities of parents and guardians towards them serves as a reminder of the shared efforts that need to be taken towards the protection of the child. The need for multiple stakeholder involvement in the protection of the child is further reinforced by the recognition provided in the Preamble of the Convention on Cybercrime of (i) the need for co-operation between states and private industry in combating cybercrime and (ii) the belief that an effective fight against cybercrime requires increased, rapid and well-functioning international cooperation in criminal matters.
In times of normalcy as in times of turmoil the greatest test of humanity is often how we treat and respond to the most vulnerable. As nations and people grapple with Covid-19, associated health concerns, and changes to accustomed lifestyles, care needs to be taken to ensure that the protection of children is given priority, and that specific, strategic and concerted attention and action are directed towards preventing and effectively responding to the online sexual exploitation of children. In the latter regard, action could include, but should not be limited to: the fostering of open communication with children by parents and guardians and the use of parental controls on devices used by children; the provision of training on online safety to children by educational establishments; government efforts to ensure that child protection teams are equipped to raise awareness and provide protective support to children and families, even if working remotely; industry efforts to install barriers that would limit the avenues through which online predators could gain access to children; and civil society efforts to report real and suspected cases of the online sexual exploitation of children to local authorities and site administrators, while also desisting from sharing sexualised content of children to unofficial parties.
As we face an unprecedented health crisis, there is some strength and comfort that could be drawn from the fact that fervent and effective action in the face of adversity is by no means unprecedented!