Monday 04 February 2013

ALARMING NEW TREND IN ONLINE SEXUAL ABUSE

Deadly combination of factors leads to children’s vulnerability

Child sex offenders are grooming children over the internet for the sole purpose of online sexual abuse in an alarming new trend, highlighted by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre.

A deadly combination of factors leads to some children being particularly at risk from online grooming. Parental or carer involvement in a child’s online life can make the crucial difference between a child being protected CEOP and University of Birmingham research says. *1

Offenders may target hundreds of children at a time in order to satisfy their sexual fantasies and once initial contact is made this often rapidly escalates into threats and intimidation. Children who are groomed into performing sexual activity online can feel ashamed, that they lost control, desperate or even suicidal.

There were 1,145 public reports in 2012 relating to incidents of online grooming. 7% of these reports related to attempting to meet a child offline, a drop from 12% in 2011.

A cluster of grooming reports from the public in 2010 led to a CEOP-led international investigation called Operation Hattie, spanning 20 months and 12 countries. This led to the arrest and conviction in December 2012 of two brothers in Kuwait who had targeted 110 children worldwide, including 78 in the UK, and forced them into performing sexual acts online. There was no evidence of an offline meeting with victims ever being a motivation.

Factors which make children vulnerable to contact abuse also make them more vulnerable to online abuse when combined with frequent internet access:

  • Personal issues; low self-esteem, confusion about their sexuality and loneliness
  • Social isolation; perhaps through problems/dissatisfaction at school with limited support from their peer group or family
  • Lack of parental monitoring or involvement in online activities; coupled with factors such family problems

Risk-taking by young people is the key factor in their vulnerability to grooming and potential contact with child sex offender. However, children whose internet activities are monitored and who have an open dialogue with their parents/carers about what they do or see online are better protected from grooming and more resilient to the techniques used by offenders.

Adolescents who take risks online by having sexualised chats or exchanging sexual images are particularly prone to the increasingly sophisticated, coercive and sinister tactics of online predators.

Smart phone ownership has increased by 21% among 12-15 year olds in just a year and six out of ten (62%) now have one*2. With built-in cameras, these devices and a new generation of apps are giving children the ability to easily communicate with strangers online and share images on the move. The Centre also knows that instant messaging on smart phones and other devices is a popular method of communicating and is used by groomers to approach potential victims. Instant messaging was used by offenders to make contact with children in around third of public reports of grooming in 2012/13.

Over two thirds (69%) of parents of 12-15 year-olds with a phone that can be used to go online do not have mobile phone parental controls or ‘filters’. This compares to the one in two parents (49%) who have technical controls in place for their child’s PC, laptop, or netbook at home.*3

On Safer Internet Day, CEOP is urging parents/carers to open up a dialogue with their children about their online lives and visit www.thinkuknow.co.uk/parents which has a newly revised parents’ and carers’ area, supported by Visa Europe. Parents can find advice on talking about difficult and sensitive subjects, a number of short films on specific dangers faced by young people online and practical easy steps for them to protect their loved ones.

CEOP also encourages parents to download a new free CEOP app for Windows 8 users that has been developed with Microsoft. This makes it easier than ever for users to access CEOP’s online safety advice pages, or make a report about suspicious or inappropriate contact online. Available from the Windows Store the app allows parents and children to quickly explore CEOP’s award winning educational videos, see the latest campaigns or follow CEOP’s Facebook page or Twitter feed updates. Peter Davies, Chief Executive at CEOP, said: “On a daily basis we see the devastation caused to young people’s lives by online grooming.

“What we are seeing is that for a growing proportion of grooming cases reported to the Centre, online abuse is an end in itself. UK children can be targeted from anywhere and offenders will cast their net widely to target large numbers of children. Things can quickly spiral out of control for victims.

“Children may be targeted because of their vulnerability but any child can be a victim. What is apparent is that parents’ and carers’ can make that vital difference in whether or not a child becomes a victim of these ruthless predators online.” Claire Lilly, safer internet lead at the NSPCC, said:

“The internet is part and parcel of young lives and most can’t remember a world before it existed. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle, but we can talk to young people and educate them on staying safe online just as we do about stranger danger or drugs.

“We are seeing a sharp rise in young people contacting ChildLine about being approached online, sending images to strangers or being exposed to online pornography. And a new generation of smart phone apps are presenting yet more problems. CEOP are doing a great job in tracking down ever more sophisticated offenders and technology companies are starting to improve their safeguards but this problem will not go away until everyone – ISPs, mobile phone companies, parents, schools and young people themselves – play their part in tackling it.”

*1 Whittle, H; Hamilton-Giachritsis, C.; Beech A.; Collings, G. (2013) A Review of Young People’s Vulnerabilities to Online Grooming. Aggression and Violent Behaviour Journal. Vol. 18. Issue 1 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S135917891200122X

*2 Ofcom, Children and Parents: Media use and attitudes report. October 2012

*3 Ofcom, Children and Parents: Media use and attitudes report. October 2012