Protecting children from abuse online

Both primary and secondary level teachers must be aware of potential harms to children and young people online, and ensure that pupils and parents are educated about the risks, writes Mark Bentley, safeguarding and cyber security lead at LGfL-The National Grid for Learning

The latest statistics from Ofcom’s Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes 2023, are astonishing – 20 per cent of three year olds in the UK have their own mobile phone and many more access tablets and their parent’s phones – it’s incredible to think that children so young are already beginning their ‘digital life’.
Three to seven year olds are using WhatsApp and FaceTime to make calls and send messages; by the age of eight to eleven, the majority of these young phone owners have profiles on TikTok, WhatsApp, YouTube and Snapchat; and by 11-12 years old, a staggering 97 per cent of children have a social media profile. But how many of these children are supervised while they are on screen? How many have parental controls activated on their devices? Do parents know who their children interact with online and what they share? Do parents really know what’s going on?
Studies show parental supervision typically declines as children get older, however online abuse does not. The current statistics from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), the only organisation outside UK law enforcement sanctioned to actively look for child sexual abuse material online, are extremely concerning. It shows that children aged 11-13 continue to appear most frequently in ‘self-generated’ imagery, as in previous years. They observed a steep increase, however, in the proportion of this type of imagery including children aged 7-10 in 2022, up 129 per cent from 2021. (IWF Annual Report 2022).
‘Self-generated’ imagery is an unfortunate term as it somehow suggests that these children have made the decision to make these images, as if it was their idea, however this is not the case. The majority of the abusers are not physically present in the room. Children are not responsible for their own sexual abuse. Many of these children have been groomed or extorted, with the youngest often simply tricked into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves. Many, especially the youngest are completely unaware of what is actually going on. The settings for this online abuse are often the victim’s bedroom or perhaps the family bathroom.

Be aware of the risks

With 7-10 and 11-13 year olds the key groups, it’s imperative both primary and secondary level teachers are aware of potential harms, and ensure that children and their parents are educated about the risks of this kind of online abuse.  
Parents may believe that their children are safe because they are in the house with them, however ‘self-generated’ abuse continues to rise. Last year, 70 per cent of the 90,368 actioned reports of 7-10 year olds, involved this kind of online abuse. The numbers are equally shocking for older children, with 89 per cent of reported actions including 11-13 year olds and 88 per cent of 14-15 and 16-17 year olds, involving ‘self-generated’ images. There may have been a parent in the house, but their child was alone in their bedroom on a tablet or other device with no parental controls activated.
We also need to be aware of the prevalence of girls in the 7-10 and 11-13 age groups being targeted, with over 61,000 and over 127,000 actioned reports, respectively. It is really important not to disregard the boys, however these figures are a key demographic of sexual abuse online.  
The past few years have seen an exponential increase of 1,058 per cent in cases since 2019. This massive jump in numbers, coincided with COVID lockdowns with more children online for longer periods of time, and virtual socialising becoming the norm. Post COVID, a decrease was expected, however this has not been the case - there are no signs of the numbers dropping.

How can we respond to these trends?

How can we help parents keep their children safe at home? Parental controls can often be forgotten about as they can be rather annoying for other users on shared devices, however, alarming trends like this, really do put their importance into context. We need to encourage parents to make decisions about what their children can and cannot access and when; especially as many young children with their own phone, sleep with it by their bed. Telling a child not to use certain sites or apps and to turn off their device and go to sleep, can result in the opposite response. We all know how tempting digital devices are, especially if a child’s peers are accessing sites and using apps and discussing them at school, and if a friend is online at bedtime.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking sounds like a buzzword, but actually is at the heart of helping children to spot manipulation of all sorts – this is one thing that the Relationships Sex and Health Education curriculum aims to cover but it is very much a whole school approach which is needed. Children, just like adults, need to think about what somebody wants when they are trying to persuade them to believe or do something, and unfortunately there are plenty of occasions where these skills are called for, from grooming to coercing self-harm and abuse.
Discussing positive relationships is another way parents can help educate their children and make them more aware of danger signs. People who seem friendly to begin with, but then request inappropriate photos or videos, are not friends. Age-appropriate open discussion about online life, can build children’s critical thinking skills and give them the confidence to say ‘no’. It’s also important to make sure children and young people know who they can report to, whether that’s a parent, a trusted adult at school, or directly to the site involved, and, most importantly, that they understand it’s not their fault.
LGfL’s ParentSafe site has information about parental controls amongst lots of other great resources for parents. It not only features a wide range of videos, activities and the latest statistics, but also suggested links to other resources from ParentZone, ThinkUKnow, Common Sense Media, Internet Matters and the NSPCC.