Shocking and unbelievable. These were the first words that came to mind, reading a report by Emily Cherry, Assistant Director of Barnardo's UK, to the Commons Science and Technology committee. Incredibly, “three-quarters of all referrals for child sex abuse, are now internet-related. Young children as young as 5 years of age, as well as being victims, are now increasingly becoming perpetrators of sexual abuse, as a direct result of what they have been exposed to online”. “Children are perpetrating sexual abuse against other children, which is an increasing concern. Unless such behaviour is tackled early, it could get worse in later life”, she added.
‘We are seeing children come through the doors at a younger and younger age, below the age of criminal responsibility. We are seeing children as young as five and an increase in the number of children aged eight to ten, coming through our doors for this. They are telling us they are on social media sites”. A further cause for concern was primary school pupils exhibiting “harmful sexual behaviour” from exposure to content online, with other primary school children “being groomed in their bedrooms via live broadcasts”, they said.
The charity highlighted a growth in “live grooming”. Worryingly parents appear to be oblivious to what was going on in their children's bedrooms. Parents have no concept, their “children were being coerced into stripping for strangers, which was live-streamed globally”. This content can then be harvesting and posted on paedophilic websites. ‘The technology-assisted side of harmful sexual behaviour is definitely growing, from the numbers that we see coming through our doors.'
There is a gathering momentum, for a call for the regulation of Social Media sites, the moderation of live broadcasts, and education to stop children posting inappropriate content. Ms Cherry called for robust age verification systems to stop children accessing sites where they could meet potential groomers, and live moderation of sites that stream in real-time. “It's like allowing a child to have a film crew in their bedroom,” she said. Children should not be permitted unsupervised access to the internet.
Emily Cheery issued a very stark warning. A failure to intervene could lead to problems as children grow up. “If we don't help children understand what is wrong, that can lead to more serious behaviour in later life,” she said. Parents must understand, this is not just one platform that is causing all the problems. We tested Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat over the weekend. Just by using a hash tag and sexualized vocabulary, we had some really extreme graphic results of sexual imagery and commentary returned.
The Internet Watch Foundation, a company who removes imagery of online child exploitation, said self-generated child sex abuse – usually the result of coercion – “had soared nearly 400 per cent in just one year”. Given that the results which have been produced by the IWF have increased year on year, should be enough to tell us all we have to act to protect our children.
If parents are waiting for the internet to become a place where children can explore, investigate and learn in a productive and educational way, you'll be waiting a while. Parents must take measures to ensure that their children are not exposed to content which sexualized them at such an early age. They should be taught what behaviours are appropriate, and what is not. Early intervention can protect a child. However, it is imperative for parents to accept that this is not an issue happening in some far off land. These very same issues are impacting children all across the country here in Ireland also.
With September almost upon us, start preparing your child, let them know that Smartphones are not a toy. There will be no Smartphones for any student this year. Every parent should support this ban on the devices. Children do not need them. If you are going to permit online access, ensure it is monitored and supervised. Restrict the time spent online. Ensure the time on-line is productive and educational.
A Social Media post is not a skill. There is no real world tangible benifit to it. Parents have to step up. We are failing our children, if we are to put our faith in online companies or governments to protect our own children from harmful content online. They try close one door, ten more open. Take the initiative yourself. Protect your child now. If you choose to wait, you may end up being too late.