Since the beginning of the Covid there has been a sharp rise in the number of incidents of online child abuse, with a growing trend of children being groomed through webcams and live streaming by predators. According to the Internet Watch Foundation (IMF), much of this abuse is happening in children’s own homes while their parents or caregivers are in another room.
We all know how important it is for children in Scotland to leave school with excellent digital skills. Today’s job market already demands this and these demands look likely to only increase exponentially with time. Digital skills are empowering. High levels of digital literacy are key to closing attainment gaps and preparing this generation for their future.
However, there is another side to life for many children in Scotland online. Last year the IMF took down 153,350 URLs of child sexual abuse in the UK, and many of those individual URLs linked to hundreds of thousands of images of child sexual abuse. Self-generated child sexual abuse (where a child is encouraged to live stream themselves carrying out sexual acts) is the fastest growing category of child abuse in the UK (increasing by 77% in 2020).
Self-generated child abuse accounted for more than one third of all online child abuse imagery in the UK before the pandemic and this rose further still during lockdown. The age group most at risk? 11-13 year olds. Because children struggle to disclose incidents of sexual abuse, and because we know they feel pressure not to disclose negative online incidents out of fear that their devices will be removed, we have to pay extreme attention to the IWF figures. These illustrate not all of the online child abuse that is happening in the UK, but the proportion that has been uncovered by IWF moderators and, accordingly, they are hugely significant.
Is this somehow an English problem? Are children in Scotland miraculously protected from these trends. Of course not. In 2016, a Police Scotland investigation – Operation Latisse – found more than 30 million indecent images of children, and identified 547 victims of online child abuse. These issues transcend geographical boundaries because they are driven, internationally, by (in no particular order):
a rising demand for sexual imagery involving children and young people,
ease of access to children and young people,
poor levels of advocacy for children within the online spaces where they spend most time,
a lack of accountability – or a governmental failure to hold tech companies in any way accountable for levels of abuse on their platforms for many years,
and a lack of understanding amongst parents and carers about the factors which create risks for children online and the importance of age-appropriate safe spaces for children as they build “digital resilience”.
Of course, sexual abuse/harmful online sexual behaviour is, by numbers, a smaller problem than certain other online harms. Cyberbullying is the most commonly identified harm, directly impacting between 21% and 29% of children and young people, and carrying significant health and wellbeing impacts for those children who are targeted online. There is also the rising trend of self-harm and the as yet unresearched question in Scotland of how access to social media impacts self-harm behaviour. In the absence of extensive research though we have so many personal accounts, like those of Molly Russell’s family, about the significance of the link.
Then parents have to grapple with online gaming, age-appropriate content on platforms, internet-connected toys as well as devices, and overwhelm seems to go through the roof and cyber safety through the floor.
The number of children with unsupervised access to hand-held mobile devices (predominately phones) at a very early age is rising annually. Our research showed that in 2020 76% of children in P5 (9 and 10 year olds) in Scotland owned a mobile phone and, of those children, a very high proportion had social media accounts, and many already had significant numbers of followers who they were unfamiliar with in.
If we are to teach children how to build cyber resilience in Scotland, they need to have time to learn positive online behaviours in positive digital spaces and not flung into digital space largely occupied widely by adults and much older young people.
As they build their skills and move into more mature spaces, children and young people need continued support and access to advocates to protect their rights’ online.
While children are learning - schools, teachers and parents need to be much more closely supported to take steps to ensure that children and young people are safe online in Scotland, and to recover when difficult situations inevitably do arise. Which is why Cybersafe Scotland exists. To help schools and families to navigate the issues around how to keep children in Scotland safe and secure online.
We have resources for parents here that can help and empower you to protect children and young people online.