By Sifa Kasongo, ChildFund International
Digital technology has changed our lives, both negatively and positively.
While it has improved the way we communicate, connect and engage with others around the world, widespread digitalization has also made it easier for perpetrators to use online platforms to facilitate horrific offenses, including the online sexual exploitation and abuse of children (OSEAC).
OSEAC is the production and online publication of visuals depicting the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, including pre-recorded videos and photographs, as well as the live-streaming of abusive acts. While each child’s experience is unique, OSEAC impacts children’s physical, psychological and social wellbeing and can have long-term negative consequences to their development and increase their vulnerability to subsequent abuse and exploitation.
OSEAC is increasing at an alarming rate globally. In 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children documented a 28 percent increase in global reports of suspected OSEAC, from 16.9 million to 21.7 million, compared to 2019. This included 65.4 million images, videos, and files.
The impact of a global pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this rapid growth as pandemic-related restrictions have increased children’s ever-growing reliance on internet-facilitated education, social activities and recreation and led to them spending more time online than ever before.
In the U.S. alone, internet usage among children aged 6–12 increased by around 50 percent following initial lockdowns. This in combination with inadequate online protective measures, children’s, youth’s and caregivers’ lack of awareness of potential risks and limited caregiver supervision enables perpetrators to easily access potential victims and leaves children vulnerable.
How gender influences online risks
Gender plays a significant role in the risks children face online. Gender-based OSEAC is an extension of existing offline gender-based violence that affects children based on their gender or sexuality and results from unequal power relations between men and women in the public and private sphere.
The Internet Watch Foundation’s 2020 annual report revealed that of the reported URLs containing child sexual abuse imagery, 93 percent featured girls. A recent Plan International study found that 58% of surveyed girls have experienced harassment online. Girls from ethnic minority groups or who identify as lesbian, bisexual, queer or trans are often specifically targeted because of their marginalized identities.
Many girls do not report online harassment, abuse and exploitation to caregivers or law enforcement out of fear of being blamed, disgraced, or ashamed, not being taken seriously, or facing retaliation from perpetrators. This, in turn, silences girls by making them afraid to share their perspectives and experiences, perpetuating patriarchal norms that make them feel unsafe online.
For many, it’s more than just a feeling. The 2021 Disrupting Harm Report from UNICEF, ECPAT International and Interpol showed that in Kenya, local authorities often lack technical knowledge on how to handle reports and cases, as they lack awareness of what OSEAC is, as well as relevant and applicable laws on how to best respond to it.
Although Consolata, 17, has never experienced OSEAC herself, she says it happens often to girls in her community in Nairobi. “Even before the internet boom, girls were at risk both at home and outside. Now, child predators can find them anywhere the moment they log in to any social media site. Adults should provide as much information as possible about online abuse and exploitation to children from a very young age.”
Boys are also vulnerable to harm online
Boys face their own gender-specific barriers to reporting online abuse. For boys, fears of facing social stigma related to questions around their masculinity and potential violation of taboos often makes it difficult for them to feel comfortable disclosing abuse or even recognizing they have been abused.
Social taboos around and criminalization of homosexuality may also contribute to many victims’ reluctance to come forward. This lack of reporting makes it difficult to estimate the full scale of OSEAC and may result in skewed data that underrepresents the magnitude of this issue.
The degree to which social norms such as gender make children vulnerable to OSEAC make it clear that it is not an issue that can be effectively addressed in isolation. Online and offline abuse are often interconnected. Children who experienced abuse, exploitation and violence offline are often more vulnerable to online sexual abuse and exploitation due to similar risk factors such as age and gender.
A global response is needed
The challenges of prevention, detection and prosecution of OSEAC requires a holistic, multi-faceted and multisectoral approach that recognizes children’s underlying vulnerabilities and overlapping risks.
Given the international nature of the internet, responses should focus on both domestic and foreign policies and integrate efforts to address OSEAC and other forms of violence and abuse within programs related to education, gender equality, early childhood development and life skills development, etc.
For example, education and awareness-raising programs on online and offline abuse could be incorporated into school curricula, with caregivers included in educational initiatives to stay informed on current online risks. This would allow for the interplaying factors that raise children’s vulnerability to violence, like gender, to be considered and addressed more effectively. It is also vital that governments prioritize young people’s agency as well as their safety, which is why meaningful child and youth participation lies at the core of this approach.
Creating safe spaces for children online
Children and youth often lack the ability to express themselves in their families and communities. Young people’s perspectives, at best, are often undervalued and, at worst, can put them at risk when they challenge traditions or address cultural taboos. This can be especially true of girls, who face gender and age-specific barriers that discourage their participation.
However, children and youth may find communities of like-minded children and youth online where they can be most themselves. The internet should be regulated in such a way that children are able to voice their opinions and express themselves without undue risks of exploitation while also having access to easy-to-use- and accessible response mechanisms for if and when exploitation and/or abuse occur.
A holistic approach would address barriers and support efforts to provide greater space for children’s and youth’s voices. Girls and boys should be encouraged to share their own experiences, because speaking out helps educate all stakeholders on the wide-ranging impact of OSEAC and other issues facing children and youth.
With approximately 1 in 3 of all global internet users aged under 18, virtual spaces can — and should — be safe for all children.