Urgent safeguarding alert over online abuse

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock
This is deeply concerning. We need to teach our pupils from an early age some basic rules about ...

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The new academic year has begun with an urgent safeguarding alert over children as young as seven who are being coerced into creating “self-generated” sexual abuse imagery – most often while in their own bedrooms.

In the first half of 2022, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) received reports of almost 78,000 webpages of child abuse imagery including so-called “self-generated” content – an increase on the same period in 2021.

More than 56,000 of these webpages contained images of 11 to 13-year-olds, but this year has seen a sharp increase in webpages featuring imagery of 7 to 10-year-olds – to almost 20,000.

The 56,000 figure for the 11 to 13 age group is actually down from the same period in 2021, when almost 64,000 webpages were reported. However, in 2020 the figure stood at 27,000 showing the huge impact that Covid-19 has had.

Meanwhile, the worrying spike in imagery showing children estimated to be aged 7 to 10 has continued a disturbing trend. In the first half of 2020, there were 4,300 webpages featuring this age group, rising sharply to almost 12,000 last year and now to almost 20,000 in 2022.

There were more than 1,300 webpages featuring teenagers aged 14 and 15 this year and almost 500 featuring those aged 16 to 17. The vast majority of all the victims are girls.

Rosa, an analyst at IWF, said: “Every day, I see children who have been asked to remove their clothes, stand naked or perform in front of a camera. They’re asked to show close ups of their genitals and sometimes use household objects to masturbate with. This happens in their bedrooms, mostly, where we see toys, laundry baskets, posters on walls, teddy bears and wardrobes full of clothes.”

The mission of the IWF is to help victims of child sexual abuse by “identifying and removing online images and videos of their abuse”.

Earlier this year, Headteacher Update's sister magazine SecEd reported how the IWF in 2021 took action on more reports of online child abuse material than during the first 15 years of its existence (SecEd, 2022).

Based in the UK, the IWF works with internet companies, governments, and others to find and remove this material. Since it began work 25 years ago, 1,800,000 reports have been assessed by IWF analysts and 970,000 child sexual abuse reports have been actioned for removal. As each report contains at least one and sometimes thousands of images, this equates to millions of criminal images removed from the internet. The IWF has a hotline for reporting webpages (see further information).

The IWF says that parents and carers must be encouraged and educated to talk to their children about the dangers associated with online life.

There is also a clear role for education professionals and the National Crime Agency offers resources for schools and parents (see further information).

Writing in Headteacher Update earlier this year, safeguarding expert Elizabeth Rose advised schools and designated safeguarding leads to review their approaches to issues of online safety and abuse in light of the changing trends and IWF data (Rose, 2022).

She identified priorities including ensuring clear leadership for whole-school approaches to online safety.

She added that while dedicated drop-down days or one-off events such as Safer Internet Day in February can be effective, these should not be the only teaching opportunities on offer.

Clear training in line with the statutory guidance Keeping children safe in education, the use of filtering and monitoring software, and ensuring online safety is reflected in the child protection policy are also key.

Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said that parental education must go hand-in-hand with efforts by government and tech companies to tackle the issue.

She said: “There is no place for child sexual abuse on the internet and we cannot simply accept, year-on-year, that sexual imagery of children is allowed to be exchanged without constraint online.

“Child sexual abuse which is facilitated and captured by technology using an internet connection does not require the abuser to be physically present, and most often takes place when the child is in their bedroom – a supposedly ‘safe space’ in the family home. Therefore, it should be entirely preventable. We need to attack this criminality from several directions, including providing parents and carers with support to have positive discussions around technology use and sexual abuse, within the home.

“Children are not to blame. They are often being coerced, tricked or pressured by sexual abusers on the internet.

“Only when the education of parents, carers and children comes together with efforts by tech companies, the government, police and third sector, can we hope to stem the tide of this criminal imagery. That is why the Online Safety Bill is so essential.”


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Comments
This is deeply concerning.
We need to teach our pupils from an early age some basic rules about how to manage their life online just as well as we teach them how to cross the road or how not to talk to strangers in the park.
Parents also need to be given guidance as to how they can lead the way in putting boundaries around screen usage.

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