How to protect children from online abuse during lockdown

Academics who have researched online child abuse have offered advice on how to keep children safe during the coronavirus lockdown.

Parents are advise to research new apps used by children. Picture: Adobe Stock
Parents are advise to research new apps used by children. Picture: Adobe Stock

Middlesex University’s Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) have also urged parents to be vigilant about popular new apps such as Zoom, House Party and Tik Tok, which are being downloaded everyday by millions of young people.

The team of CATS academics, who have worked on major national and European research projects, are also concerned the Covid-19 crisis could see an increase in various forms of online abuse and they are advising parents to take these basic five steps:

  • Have a dialogue with children about online safety

  • Research the new apps being downloaded before allowing children to use them

  • Revisit and strengthen existing parental controls

  • Watch out for particular change of behaviour among children

  • Discuss peer-on-peer abuse

The NSPCC has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic has created the “perfect storm” for abusers because there are less moderators who tackle online abuse working and more children using the internet while off-school.

This warning came after Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, reported an “increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material”.

Jeffrey DeMarco, lecturer in psychology who specialises in forensic, criminological and legal research, said: “If you think about the perpetrators operating on the internet from an opportunist perspective, the current lockdown conditions provide the perfect conditions to go ‘fishing’ due to the increased presence of young people on the internet using their devices and parents/carers not being able to constantly keep an eye on their children and the content they are consuming due to their own new work-life balance.”

Elena Martellozzo, associate professor in criminology, who worked with the NSPCC and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in 2016 examining the impact online pornography may have on young people, added: “In the current coronavirus crisis, there are more people online and less people operating online to protect them.

“Most people are working from home and even with the most advanced technological support our effectiveness and efficiency has inevitably been diminished.

“People working in law enforcement or child protection cannot do everything by working from home.

“So it is paramount to be proactive in this period of isolation otherwise we run the real danger that online abuse could increase.

“That includes more children being exposed to harmful images such as pornography or violent images that could upset them; or they might adventure themselves in the abyss of the dark web, with everything that it offers.

“There’s so much potential risk in the current climate.”

CATS are advising parents to be diligent as a wave of new apps are downloaded by children looking to stay in contact with friends, particularly Zoom, Tik Tok and House Party which are the top three downloads on Google Play.

DeMarco said: “Young people no longer socialise with text messages or WhatsApp, it’s all about sending video and voice notes to each other or through live streaming.

“A common issue with protecting young people online is that the adults responsible for safeguarding children are often behind the curve of the new ‘hot app’ which is being used.

“What’s different this time is it is essentially a gold rush with hundreds of new apps and platforms popping out and parents and carers have not got the time to keep on top of the situation.”

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