Access to technology by children has facilitated instant connectivity and accessibility, children are able to communicate freely with people they would not usually interact with. Research into online exploitation of children has indicated that children are less likely to disclose being harmed online so harm online is often discovered accidentally by parents/carers or through notifications by the police. Also, exploitation online does not always follow familiar models of child exploitation so can be more difficult to detect by professionals.
Perpetrators can use social media apps and online games to identify young people whom they seek to groom. Children can be groomed online without ever meeting the perpetrator face to face, perpetrators online can be known to use persuasive language to arrange meeting the young person quickly. GPS technology can be used to pinpoint (within a few metres) where a photo was taken – possibly revealing a victim’s location easily. They can be coerced to post sexual images of themselves, or peers, online or via their mobile phone. Then they have no control over these images which can lead to heightened trauma for the victim as there is a visual record of the abuse and they experience repeat victimisation with each viewing of their abuse. Perpetrators can use these images as a bargaining tool with subsequent threats and coercion to engage in further sexual activity and sharing of images.
Some of the methods of online exploitation of young people include:
Exploring a young person’s online world
Most young people use digital technology on a regular basis, moving between their online and offline worlds seamlessly. Professionals should be aware that digital technology is an integral part of young people’s lives and influential in the formation of their identity and relationships with others. Therefore, exploring a young person’s online network and how they choose who, and who not, to interact with is essential in effective safeguarding. The PCFSW Digital Research & Practice Development Project (May 2020) has some practitioner guidance on how to explore a young person’s online activity to determine the aspects that may enhance their resilience or may be a risk to their safety and wellbeing. This offers fourth dimension to the DoH Assessment Framework to include digital citizenship and digital risks.
Young people’s use of various social media apps can change rapidly. The NSPCC provides up to date information and guidance about popular social networks, apps and games young people are currently using.
Online Safeguarding: The Dark Web - The Children's Society briefing explaining what the dark web is, why young people may be accessing it and what to do if you have concerns.
Grooming of children online
Similarly, to the grooming process outlined under Models and theories of child exploitation, grooming of children online aims to develop a ‘special’ relationship with the child so they lower their inhibitions. However, online grooming can often take the form of the perpetrator adopting a false identity in order to groom the child more quickly and arrange an offline meeting to carry out a contact sexual offence. During the grooming process online, the perpetrator will try to find out as much about the victim as possible in order to determine the likelihood of the child telling others. They may then try to isolate the child from these protective networks through threats or bribes. This process involves removing the child’s inhibitions to sexual activity by exposing them to child sexual abuse images. Repeated exposure aims to de-sensitise the child to sexual activity between adults and children and distort their understanding of social norms. Many children can feel less inhibited in their online worlds and find themselves caught in a trap of being ‘duped’ into saying or doing something they later feel ashamed about. This sense of shame further silences child victims who feel unable to speak out about the abuse they experienced.
Breck’s Last Game explains how online gaming can be used to groom and exploit young people.
Youth-Produced Sexual Imagery
This includes photographs, videos or live streaming. Young people may be coerced by adults or peers to share sexual images of themselves or pass on images sent to them. These are criminal offences, even if the image is of the young person themselves. ‘Making’ of indecent images includes opening, accessing, downloading or storing online content. ‘Sharing’ includes sending an email, offering a file to a sharing platform or uploading to a site others have access to. This guidance for young people explains the legal framework around this issue in more detail.
Childline’s Zipit app, uses humour to help teenagers deal with unwanted requests for sexual images of themselves. The free app offers young people a gallery of images and animations which they can send in response to requests for sexual pictures and to deal with difficult sexting situations.
Cyberbullying can be defined as “The use of Information Communication Technology, particularly mobile phones and the internet to deliberately hurt or upset someone” (Department for Children, Schools & Families, 2007). Cyberbullying is a form of bullying. 12% of young people are affected by cyberbullying. There is guidance for schools and an online PHSE toolkit.
Bullying Online is an online help and advice service combating all forms of bullying. Recognising that many young people that have lost friends through being bullied in the real world may turn to the internet to make new friends, the ‘Staying safe in cyberspace’ section gives tips for staying safe in chat rooms. There is also a section on mobile phone bullying, giving tips on how to protect yourself, and information on how the law can help. The site provides information for pupils, teachers and parents;