By Jill Webster

Over 1.5 billion children across the globe were sent home from school in mid-March indefinitely due to the pandemic. For students, teachers, and parents, schools were converted into virtual environments almost overnight. The change to remote learning has led to serious, potential risks to children. Young people are spending an unprecedented amount of time in front of screens, as technology is being used for education, entertainment, and socializing. Many parents are distracted and overwhelmed with working from home, overseeing distance learning of their child(ren), and managing the stress of the current pandemic. This has created somewhat of a perfect storm. Children’s online activity has increased while parents’ supervision has possibly decreased. Online predators have taken advantage of this scenario, and the numbers of child exploitation online have increased drastically during the pandemic.

This ongoing, weekly-updated blog provides tips to keep your children safe online and ongoing, current issues involving child exploitation online.

Tips for Keeping Children Safe Online

  • Parents should have open and frequent conversations with children about online activity and safety.
  • Children should not engage with anyone online that they do not talk to offline. This includes friends of friends. If they have not met someone face-to-face, they should not be interacting online with them.
  • Parents should have passwords to all electronic devices and accounts. Online activity should be monitored randomly.
  • Parental control settings on devices should be utilized.
  • Review apps and games before approving.
  • Devices should be kept in an open part of the house.
  • Ensure that children understand that once content/images are posted online or sent electronically via text or private messaging, there is the potential for screen capturing.
  • It is not illegal for children to send sexually explicit content to someone if they were pressured or manipulated into doing so.
  • Emphasize to children that they should always tell a trusted adult if someone tries to coerce them into sexually explicit behavior.

End Violence Against Children has reported the following graphic of staggering statistics regarding the online sexual abuse and exploitation of children. These figures illustrate how severe the issue was before COVID-19. The problem is exploding during the pandemic. There are 800 million children using social media actively and 200,000 are going online every day.

The Week of June 15, 2020

Protecting Children During the COVID-19 Outbreak

This is an excellent resource that contains a compilation of valuable, practical material regarding how the pandemic is affecting children and families. The material will be updated daily so refer to it often for current information. There is information for protecting children at home, online, in humanitarian settings, focused on gender, and other general resources. There are tips for healthy parenting, how to talk to children about COVID-19, educational material, and entertainment ideas. There are resources for children and adults to help cope with stress and mental health information. Credible, reliable resources for health information related to the virus are also provided.

Stay Safe at Home. Stay Safe Online.

End Violence Against Children has partnered with its technology company affiliates to create a campaign to help keep kids safe online during the pandemic. They are working with Google, Microsoft, Snapchat, Roblox, Facebook, and Twitter. These companies, in conjunction with the governments of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom, have created a series of public service announcement to help parents, children, teachers, and caregivers keep kids safe while at home and be aware of the dangers online. There are five recommended steps and links to additional resources for each step. The steps are: talk with children about online risks, stay involved in their digital world, know who they’re connecting with online, use privacy and security settings, and block and report people who make them feel uncomfortable. Additional material on keeping kids safe online can be found here.

The Coronavirus Pandemic Puts Children at Risk of Online Sexual Exploitation

A recent New York Times article shared how a mother took comfort in the fact that her 13-year-old son was “only” playing Fortnite and Minecraft and not violent games like Grand Theft Auto. She was horrified when she soon discovered online chats between her son and other players included a video of bestiality with a child. Scenarios like this are unfortunately not uncommon. There were over 45 million cases of child sexual abuse material reported by tech companies on their platforms in 2018.

Predators are using the chat features of video games and posing as children. They befriend kids and gain their trust by making up stories usually of some sort of hardship. The predators gradually build up to coercing the children into sending them explicit photos or videos. They may use financial bribes, as well. Once they have images, they use them to demand the children to send more explicit images. They may threaten to tell the children’s parents about the images if the children do not comply with the abuser’s demands. Children are very fearful about the shame associated with having sexual pictures of them taken. They often do not realize that they are victims in these scenarios. Abusers exploit this and make the children feel ashamed and fearful of telling anyone. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have escalated all this behavior. Children are online more, abusers are online more, and parents are more distracted and stressed than usual. This is leading to children having more unsupervised time online, which can leave them more vulnerable to exploitation. Abusers are taking advantage of this. Parents can combat this and protect their children in some simple ways. Have open, honest conversations with your child (ren) without shame or judgment. Emphasize that they should always tell you or a trusted adult if someone asks them to do something sexual. Ensure that they know it is never their fault, no matter what anyone tells them. Teach your children that they should be concerned and let you know immediately if someone online does any of the following: asks them to chat on a more anonymous platform like Snapchat or Kik, asks them for personal information, asks them to do anything sexual, offers them any sort of gifts (including credits for gaming), or asks them not to tell anyone about them. These are difficult, heartbreaking conversations to have with children that can feel like we are destroying their innocence. However, if our children are going to be online, including gaming, unfortunately, these conversations are necessary to protect them. Here is an international database of hotlines that has been created for parents to call if they are concerned about their children being exploited or abused. As parents, we can be feeling overwhelmed by all that is happening in the world right now. It can be a scary time. We can do small, simple things to keep our kids safe online. Have honest chats with them. This is not a one-time discussion, continue to check in with them, and remind them how to stay safe online. Consistently reassure them that you are on their side.

The Week of June 8, 2020

Some of this information is from March and April. It is important to give the background and foundation of the issue and build on it from there. We do not want to bombard and overwhelm you with a great deal of information all at once. This blog will be ongoing, so we will continue to provide updated content each week.

 The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children experienced a 126% increase in CyberTipline Reports in May.

May 2019: 745,391 reports | May 2020: 1,688,109 reports

COVID-19 and its implications for protecting children online

COVID-19 has caused unprecedented changes for children. It has forced schools to close and activities and social gatherings to be canceled. Children are relying on technology for education, social connection, and entertainment. Internet usage has increased by 50% in parts of the world since the inception of COVID-19. The best way to keep children safe is by staying informed and continuing to communicate with children about the risks and how to navigate online safely.

Risks:

  • Online sexual exploitation – Loneliness and isolation of children can lead to the connection with more people online and groups online, some whom they may not know. The demand for child sexual abuse material has increased due to adults online more with shelter-in-place mandates. Children who are sexually abused by family members are now forced to stay at home with their abusers, which can lead to increased abuse. Abusers who livestream child sexual abuse of family members now have more frequent access to children at home.
  • Cyberbullying – The quarantine and increased time online has introduced many younger children to social media, chat rooms, and instant messaging. These inexperienced kids may find themselves victims of cyberbullying.
  • Personal data collection – With the increase in children spending time online, there are risks for data collection and sharing. Discuss and review with your child the policies for any sites or apps your child is using that collects their personal data.
  • Risky online behavior – Children who are bored, frustrated, lonely, and angry about the shelter-in-place orders may act out with some risky online behaviors. They may be sexting, which could put them in danger of embarrassment and extortion.
  • Inappropriate content – The more time children spend online the higher the risk is for viewing content that is not age-appropriate. Kids can be exposed to information that is politically-based, violent, sexual, racist, or encourages self-harm or suicide. Children can also view inaccurate information about COVID-19 that could cause concern. There is an increased risk of kids being exposed to online ads for products that are not age-appropriate or do not align with your values.
  • Limited online protection – When schools had to establish remote learning quickly, some of the protocols to protect children may not have been established. Parents should review school policies for safety.

Millions of attempts to access child sexual abuse online during lockdown

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a UK-based organization that locates and removes child sexual abuse online. Over the course of one month during the pandemic, IWF along with its partners blocked over 8.8 million attempts to view child sexual abuse images online by UK internet users. IWF collected this data from three companies that utilize the IWF URL list. This is a list of websites that contain child sexual abuse videos and/or images that IWF is in the process of having removed from the internet. Internet companies use this list to prevent access to known online child sexual abuse sites. It safeguards victims against having images continually shared online and keeps people from locating the sites accidentally. The CEO of IWF, Susie Hargreaves encourages more companies to use the list. “We need to face up to the fact there is a demand in the UK for this material. Given that this data comes from just three UK tech companies, 8.8 million attempts is a conservative picture and the scale is much bigger – possibly millions more. While the UK hosts less than half a percent of all child sexual abuse material in the world, UK sex predators are helping fuel the world-wide trade in some of the most depraved content on the internet.” Hargreaves states that millions of intentional and inadvertent attempts have been thwarted by the list.

Child abuse predator ‘handbook’ lists ways to target children during coronavirus lockdown

A manual has been produced and circulated online with tips on how to exploit children during the pandemic. This handbook for predators details how to manipulate children into sharing explicit videos and images of themselves rather than meeting in person due to regulations instituted for COVID-19. Abusers are taking advantage of the combination of children being home online much more often, in addition to feeling lonely and secluded, as well as diminished parental supervision. Australia’s e-Safety office has seen a substantial increase in searches for child abuse material on the dark web during the pandemic. Australia’s e-Safety commissioner states reports of child sexual abuse material increased by 27% and 37% in March and April respectively. Investigators have seen predators on the dark web chat rooms sharing that they have a better chance to groom children virtually for sexual exploitation while under stay-at-home orders, and other abusers have shared that the pandemic has given them more time to abuse children. A spokeswoman from the eSafety Office said, “We’ve picked up other users commenting that Covid-19 is bringing more youth online to platforms such as YouTube, vlog sites, online challenges, and Omegle, creating more opportunity to groom them.”

The Week of June 1, 2020

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC)

There have been dramatic increases in the number of reports to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline. The following information was reported directly from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

NCMEC has experienced a 106% increase in CyberTipline reports in March compared to last March, and a 318% increase in April compared to last April:

  • March 2019: 983,734 reports / March 2020: 2,027,520 reports
  • April 2019: 1,003,972 reports / April 2020: 4,194,904 reports

Important to note: A significant factor contributing to the dramatic increase in reports are several child sexual abuse videos that went “viral” in recent weeks.

  • NCMEC is aware of one case in which a video depicting the sexual abuse of a young child was widely shared, because people were outraged and tried to help identify and rescue the victim.
  • It is illegal to share images & videos of child sexual abuse, even if you’re trying to help. Each time child sexual abuse material is shared, it revictimizes the child. We encourage people to report all incidents of child sexual abuse. Please do not share or re-post images of child sexual abuse.
  • Reports to the CyberTipline originate from all over the world and are submitted by members of the public and the U.S. tech industry, which is required to report child sexual abuse material to the CyberTipline

Some NCMEC observations with the COVID-19 ERA:

  • Kids & adults are spending more time online due to school closures and stay at home orders.
  • Child predators are using the darknet to discuss stay-at-home orders and using this opportunity to entice children to produce sexually explicit material.
  • NCMEC has observed some child traffickers adjusting to the reluctance of buyers to meet in-person to engage in commercial sex. Some traffickers are now offering options for subscription-based services in which buyers pay to access online images and videos of the child.

 Online Predators Arrested in Operation COVID Crackdown

In April 2020, Virginia’s Fairfax County Police Department arrested 30 men during Operation COVID Crackdown. This was a sting conducted online to locate and arrest predators exploiting children online. The offenders started explicit conversations and solicited sex online with police officers who were posing as children. The men, ranging in age from 20 to 74, were taken into custody once they arrived at the agreed-upon location. They have been charged with a total of 68 felonies. Names, ages, photos, cities, and charges of those arrested are provided in the article. The Fairfax County Police Department provides tips for online safety for children and reporting procedures.

FBI Press release: School Closings Due to COVID-19 Present Potential for Increased Risk of Child Exploitation

The FBI issued a press release on March 23, 2020, warning parents, caregivers, educators, and children of the possible increase in online sexual exploitation of children due to school closings. Exploitation comes in many forms, and offenders make contact in a variety of ways. Many start to build a relationship casually, then introduce a sexual component that becomes increasingly inappropriate over time. The FBI provides several recommendations for Internet safety for families to prevent child exploitation and tips for addressing any incidents that may occur.

UNICEF Press Release: Children at Increased Risk of Harm Online During Global COVID-19 Pandemic

On April 15, 2020, UNICEF released a statement about the implications of over 1.5 billion children and young people affected by the global school closings. Children have been mandated to stay home during the pandemic, which has resulted in an extraordinary increase in screen time for children. Most children are going to school remotely, socializing electronically, and entertaining themselves with some form of technology. Many children are not equipped to safely navigate all of this for themselves. They may be more likely to take risks and engage in inappropriate online behavior due to a lack of social interaction. They may be more exposed to potentially violent and harmful content and at greater risk of cyberbullying due to more time and less structure online. More time online can lead to increased risk of online sexual exploitation and grooming, as predators are taking advantage of the pandemic.

National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) Press Release: Teen Vogue Must Stop Encouraging Quarantined Teens to Self-Produce Child Exploitation Materials by Sexting

On March 25, 2020, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation asked Teen Vogue to stop suggesting that their teen readers produce child sexual abuse material (child pornography) by sexting while quarantined. NCOSE has also requested that Snapchat stop sharing these messages from Teen Vogue through their Discover feature. Teen Vogue has been promoting sexting as harmless fun. According to research, sexting can lead to sexual coercion, extortion, abuse, and trafficking.

UK National Crime Agency (NCA): Man Sentenced Over Some of the Worst Child Abuse Content NCA Investigators Have Ever Seen

 On April 16, 2020, a man from Manchester, England was sentenced for charges stemming from some of the worst child abuse content the National Crime Agency investigators have ever seen. Haitch Macklin, 38, had a collection of videos that included torturing babies and toddlers. He sold access to his collection of videos to other offenders through an encrypted messaging app. The NCA stated that there is an increased risk to children from online offenders during the pandemic. Over four weeks, the NCA created 1,060 child sexual abuse packages for police to investigate. There have been eight warrants issued, with five arrests made of high-risk child sexual abuse offenders. The NCA estimated that at least 300,000 people in the UK pose a sexual threat to children.

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If you think you have seen a missing child, or suspect a child may be sexually exploited, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

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Jill Webster first joined Hetherington Group in 2009, then returned in 2018. She has a keen eye for detail, inherent curiosity, and natural persistence that are beneficial when conducting investigations and researching for writing. She works on special projects and is responsible for in-house proofreading of client reports. She creates content for Hg’s blog regarding predators taking advantage of the most vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. Webster develops material and creates webinars for online safety for children.