Rebooting child protection systems: 5 ways to address child sexual abuse online

system reboot

With more children than ever now engaging online, it is vital that they are both protected and enabled to engage safely. After the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted General Comment 25 on the digital environment, Anna Gawn, Child Protection and International Safeguarding consultant, considers how this can be implemented effectively for children around the world.

One in three internet users is a child and the next billion internet users are likely to come from emerging markets and developing countries. To ensure that children can be safe and active in different digital environments, child protection systems across the globe need to be updated now to reflect this new reality.

Child sexual abuse and exploitation weaves between offline and digital environments: abuse can occur in person and be uploaded onto digital platforms or services, and abuse that occurs online can have repercussions offline. At the same time, there can be different risks, dynamics and implications of abuse and exploitation which manifests online or in person. Understanding the interconnection and the differences is key to framing the problem, and therefore to getting prevention and response strategies and programmes right.

There is no internationally accepted definition of a child protection system but most definitions share common characteristics. Save the Children UK defines a child protection system as a “collection of interlinking elements or components in society (at family, community, subnational and national levels) that are organised around the common goal of preventing, responding to and mitigating the effects of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of children”. While individual projects and innovative initiatives responding to child sexual exploitation and abuse online have made impressive strides, child protection systems as a whole across the globe are not aligned to reflect digital realities. Some key points to consider when integrating online realities into existing child protection systems are noted below. They are based on five (of eight) components of a child protection system.

1 Make laws, policies and regulatory frameworks fit for the digital age

Last week, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted General Comment 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. This is exciting as it sets out how national governments should interpret and implement children’s rights in digital environments. National governments should respond quickly and consider how children’s engagement in digital environments should be integrated into technology or digital environment-related legislation and regulations, and existing domestic child welfare or protection laws and policies, including customary law.

2 Update national child protection strategies

Existing child protection national strategies, or plans of action to eliminate violence, exploitation and abuse against children, need to fully reflect child exploitation and abuse online. This means including objectives or action related to the specific online dynamics and the offline and online interconnections. The revised indicators, milestones and budgets need to be monitored as well as aligned with other sectors, including health, education, justice, social protection (child protection requires multi-sectoral services).

3 Equip and enable efficient coordination around a shared vision

Programmes responding to child sexual exploitation and abuse online require meaningful coordinationat local, national and global levels. This is illustrated in the WePROTECT Global Alliance Global Strategic Response to online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Digital environments enable quick, widespread and irreversible sharing of abusive material (including child sexual abuse material, CSAM). The consequences can be hard to manage and control (potential reach, repeat sharing) and possibly less localised. Also, the cross-border nature of digital environments can mean that demand for CSAM in country X can generate supply in country Y.

In child protection systems, coordination across actors, sectors and society levels is key to making reporting systems and referral networks work and to providing appropriate multi-sectoral services. Where existing systems do not reflect abuse that occurs online, changes will be required. For example, this may include developing reporting systems for digital environments (and aligning them with existing offline reporting systems and referral networks), and adapting existing or adding new multi-sectoral services to understand digital dynamics and implications.

On top of this, meaningful coordination with the technology industry is vital. A range of initiatives aimed at combating child sexual abuse and exploitation in digital environments focus on better online reporting systems, identifying abuse with AI, product and service safety-by-design, research to inform new good practice and much more. The use and ultimate success of such tech initiatives requires integration with the relevant components of a nation’s child protection system.

4 Build a knowledge base that reflects online opportunities and risks

Accurate numbers of child victims or survivors of online exploitation or abuse are largely unknown (and probably higher than what is reported, especially in light of COVID-19). To date, prevalence figures appear to have been prioritised over a detailed understanding of risk. In addition, we urgently need a better and more detailed understanding of risk. While the way children (and abusing adults) live their lives online can be hidden and potential risks may be hard to identify, the importance of comprehensive risk analyses can’t be understated.

We know that all children engaging online may be at risk of abuse and that children with existing vulnerabilities are more at-risk online. We have less information on specific risks, specific vulnerabilities and the implications for children. Analysis of the risks facing groups of children with different characteristics across the globe is critical to the ultimate value of the knowledge gathered for quality prevention and response practice.

5 Change knowledge, attitudes and behaviours to focus on online responsibilities

Children are mostly abused by someone they know and trust in person and online. In the latter, the abusive material can be permanent – every view is a repeat abuse and abusers (viewers, the CSAM demand source) are widely present and active. It is also true that online “children can be groomed, deceived or extorted into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves.”

Change is needed at all levels – with children themselves, parents / caregivers and families, communities and societies – to promote the opportunities and risks of digital engagement for children. Everyone (children and adults alike) should be informed in an age-appropriate way how to engage responsibly online. And, everyone interacting with others online (in “online communities”) should know: what abuse can look like online, how to identify abuse online, that they have a social responsibility to report suspicions or complaints, especially where a child may be involved, and how to report abuse online.

Child sexual  exploitation and abuse online is a global issue that requires a comprehensive and strategic response. Rebooting national child protection systems across the globe is a core part of this. The elements of a child protection system mentioned here are interrelated and all require attention to ensure that child protection systems are a relevant to the lives of children today.


Anna Gawn is Director of Stratagem International, where she advises international organisations, private sector actors and INGOs on child protection and safeguarding (digital and offline) reform. She has been working with WePROTECT Global Alliance on a guidance note to accompany the Global Strategic Response framework.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WePROTECT Global Alliance or any of its members.

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