‘Free to be me’ was the theme for this year’s Safer Internet Day, which was marked by new research from the UK Safe Internet Centre that found young people’s online experiences are an essential part of who they are offline.
The freedom that young people enjoy online is found to be building an informed and inspired generation, but it is also making them vulnerable to an unprecedented level of online grooming and sexual abuse.
The internet has largely escaped regulation through fear that restricting access to information is censorship, but as more and more of our lives are lived out online, it can no longer be treated as separate to the “real” world. The very real-life consequences of such unabated freedom are making it a safe haven for criminals who are damaging the lives of our young, digital citizens.
The reluctance to regulate the internet was most clearly highlighted in the UK government’s fiasco with online age verification of adult content sites. First laid out in the 2018 Digital Economy Act, the legislation sought to create the same safe environment online that exists in the offline world, and restrict adult content sites to over 18s. The legislation was put back three times, and then finally scrapped amongst concerns it risked “dragging British citizens into a draconian censorship regime”. However, it has since been announced that Ofcom will be in charge of regulating the internet in the UK.
Protecting young people online
Here at Yoti, we believe much more needs to be done to protect young people online and we develop much of our technology to pursue this cause. Our secure solution to the online age verification enables anyone to be anonymously and remotely age checked with no exchange of personal details. We have also been working with the NSPCC to design a secure way minors can report sexually explicit content of themselves to the IWF for it to be removed from the internet.
Our Country Lead for Scotland, Gordon Scobbie, has operated at every level with UK policing from constable to chief officer, and has seen first-hand the scale of online grooming and sexual abuse. As well as steering Yoti’s work with the Scottish Improvement Service, he is a Deputy Chair of the Board of Trustees on the Marie Collins Foundation (MCF).
The Marie Collins Foundation
The MCF does seminal work addressing the recovery needs of children, and their families, who suffer harm online. The charity was set up by CEO Tink Palmer MBE, who, in Gordon’s words, is one of the most inspiring woman he has ever met.
Tink joined us on Safer Internet Day to talk to us about how the nature of child grooming has changed with the internet and about the work the MCF does in rehabilitating victims of sexual abuse. She was joined by Rhiannon, who became a victim of online grooming and sexual abuse at the age of 13.
She battled in silence with the trauma for two years before her case was picked up by the police. She gave the police permission to use her case in awareness campaigns at schools but continued to battle with a long period of depression marked by two suicide attempts. At the age of 30, she is now a fully-qualified lawyer and is working with the MCF to raise awareness and ensure victims of online grooming are supported to recovery.
Rhiannon is testament to the fact that recovery is possible with the right support, and her and Tink work endlessly to aid this process. The MCF have set up work with practitioners to teach them about how to correctly support victims of online abuse under their CLICK: Path to Protection, a unique training programme for practitioners working with sexually abused children, and the Global Protection Online Network, to facilitate the sharing of good practice and enable professionals to access advice and guidance from a range of experts in the field.
You can find the full interview with Tink below and find out more about the charities work at MCF.
Please tell us about the Marie Collins Foundation and your role within it?
I received my first internet case in 1998 when I was running a large therapeutic unit for children who had been sexually abused. The police came to see me and asked how such a case should be managed because it was the first one they had dealt with. My reaction was, initially, “I haven’t got a clue”, but a couple of days later, I dropped into the police station and said to police colleagues, “Human nature doesn’t change and the motivations for people to want to sexually harm children remain the same BUT we have a different conduit (ie the internet) and I wonder what differential impact this may have”. Thus my interest in the online sexual abuse of children began.
What are the main harms being posed by the internet and new technologies?
The main harms for children are the risks of being victims to sexually exploitative and abusive behaviours by others; to bullying, to blackmail, to encouragement to self harm.
Are there any areas causing particular challenges?
The growth in the number of online sexual offences against children has grown exponentially in the last three years. Such offending behaviour takes the form of the making of abusive images of children, live-streaming the abuse of children, encouraging children to take indecent images of themselves. This is a particular challenge. The most common sites where abusers make initial contact with children are social media such as Facebook and games.
How has the nature of grooming changed with the internet?
Before the internet, children were groomed in a four stage process – a) have a sexual interest, b) overcome their own conscience about it, c) get over external barriers and people who are in the way of accessing children, d) abuse the child.
On the internet, there are no barriers around children, who are free agents online. We have a very fast process of grooming, and groomers tend to just scatter gun until they catch someone who’s vulnerable, and then start working on them, praising them, telling them they’re wonderful and then asking them for an image.
Have you seen changes or patterns in the nature of online abuse in recent years?
Yes. There has been an increase in the number of cases coming to the attention of police and safeguarding personnel. The number of cases brought to the attention of the police far outweighs our capacity to respond. A second change is that the ages of children portrayed in the images appear to be getting younger. A third and worrying change is that children and young people are increasingly being apprehended for the taking of “selfies” which they then send on to a peer.
How has the concept of “normal” behaviour changed with the internet?
If you think back 40 years ago when people were in their early teenage years, testing out sexuality and relationships was generally done in private. Nobody knew what a fool you’d made of yourself – you got yourself into a situation, but you got yourself out of it. It’s totally different online.
Young people’s communication online is totally different to their communication offline. Their language is very crude, very quickly. They say they’d never dream to speak in such a way offline but online, their inhibition goes. It’s also incredibly normal to exchange images. It’s hard for them to understand the difference between exchanging images that are perfectly okay to exchange and from images that are a) potentially illegal, and b) could be very damaging to them and their self-esteem once they realise what could be done with those images.
What support is there right now for children harmed online?
Very little – that is why the MCF is so unique. There needs to be far more support. There’s a lack of understanding amongst professional safeguarding people – the police, children services, and NGOs – around the differential impact of online abuse, particularly in the way people are groomed.
We know industry is coming on board, for example, Microsoft have released a grooming app, but we’ve been asking for industries to come on board for the last 20 years and we still need far more from them. Children have a right to a safe childhood, it’s the adults that have the duty to keep them safe.