GLOBAL THREAT ASSESSMENT 2023
Children and young people are propelling the increased global level of internet connectivity. While increased internet access and usage can bring benefits, it also exposes children to a wide range of risks, including sexual exploitation and abuse. Children from minority or marginalised groups are at even more at risk.
It is essential to centre children’s perspectives when designing policies about their safety. This helps ensure that interventions and services are responsive to the experiences, rights, and needs of young people.
Data from International Telecommunication Union shows 75% of people aged 15-24 in 2022 being active internet users compared to 65% of the rest of the population.
“We are the generation that’s grown up online and we know what changes are needed to minimise the potential damage of cyber-abuse.”Ruhani, 14 years old & Elliot, 15 years old – Australian eSafety Youth Council
We must adopt child-centred approaches. These approaches ensure that our interventions and services align with the experiences, rights, and needs of young people. This means:
- removing barriers to abuse identification and help-seeking,
- equipping children with age-appropriate knowledge and tools to navigate online spaces safely, and
- enabling children to hold online service providers to account for taking steps to keep them safe online.
These steps are essential in fostering a safer online environment for children and are paramount for all of us committed to addressing this issue effectively.
Children’s perceptions and personal factors
Evidence shows that personal factors can have an important impact on children’s experience of and exposure to online harm. Minority or marginalised groups based on their sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or disability are more exposed to online sexual harm.
The #MyVoiceMySafety global consultation, which we conducted with the United Nations Office of the Special Representative on Violence Against Children, revealed that children aged 7-10 displayed less awareness of online risks.
This highlights an urgent need for earlier age-appropriate interventions to raise awareness of online risks.
An initiative from the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) and the Australian Federal Police’s ThinkUKnow programme.
It resulted in the creation of a children’s picture book on online safety, aimed at parents, caregivers, and educators to share with 5-8 year-olds, offering age-appropriate guidance on online grooming and how parents can respond to issues.
Sex and gender
For the past three years, 93% of detected child sexual abuse material processed by the International Watch Foundation has featured girls, in line with the 92% of material reported to INHOPE in 2022. However, boys feature in an increasing proportion of ‘self-generated’ sexual material and financial sexual extortion cases.
Evidence indicates that boys and girls appear to be vulnerable in different ways. Rather than indiscriminately using the same interventions to target both boys and girls, tailored interventions should be developed. This is especially important where gender stereotypes associated with masculinity, and gender-biassed laws in certain geographies, create barriers to disclosure and help-seeking and prevent boys from being recognised as survivors of sexual exploitation.
Race and ethnicity
Children from ethnic and racial minorities are more at risk of being victims of cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse online.
Out of 2,000 18 year olds surveyed in four European countries, 79% belonging to an ethnic or racial minority experienced at least one sexual harm during childhood, compared with 68% who did not belong to a minority. (Economist Impact and WeProtect Global Alliance)
Also, victims and survivors from racial or ethnic minorities can face unique barriers to disclosure and support due to institutional and systemic discrimination, cultural norms, and taboos.
Sexual orientation and gender identity and expression
Multiple studies show that children who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to experience online sexual harm.
In a study of 9-17 year olds in the US, LGBTQ+ children were more than twice as likely to stay in contact with someone online who made them uncomfortable, citing friendship as the main cause for maintaining the relationship (Thorn).
Disrupting Harm found that the criminalisation of homosexuality and cultural taboos limited help-seeking behaviour in seven of the thirteen countries evaluated.
Children with disabilities are more at risk of experiencing sexual harm.
Some of the key factors behind this are lack of awareness, and non-inclusive safeguarding and protection measures not considering the needs of children with disabilities.
Solutions should be tailored to the needs of children with disabilities, in order to reduce their risk of experiencing sexual harm.
The DeafKidz Defenders programme teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing children how to recognise online abuse, say no, and seek help.
Poverty and inequality – exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, and climate change – continue to fuel child sexual exploitation and abuse.
New evidence suggests a correlation between frequently viewing pornography and accessing child sexual abuse material online.
A 2021 study of high school students in Indonesia found that the age of first exposure to pornography had a significant relationship with ‘risky’ sexual behaviours, i.e. those exposed aged under 12 displayed more ‘high-risk’ sexual behaviours.
Children’s voices in online safety measures
The #MyVoiceMySafety poll highlights the importance of considering children’s perspectives. When we don’t, it can lead to gaps in our response that could be exploited by those with harmful intentions. It also shows that there’s a gap between how children perceive online risks and how these risks actually play out.
“Through my voice as a young activist, I suggest that state and non-state partners, as major players in the moderation of this issue, take their responsibility to protect us seriously”Adidja, 17 years old, Plan International Youth Campaigner
“With the collaboration of young people, citizens, governments and companies in putting this report’s recommendations into action, the problem of sexual abuse and exploitation of children through digital spaces could significantly improve in the future.”Noa, 18 years old, Microsoft Digital for Good Youth Council