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Education, isn’t that the answer?

 

Shouldn’t we just tell primary school pupils not to talk to strangers, the same as in real life. Won’t the problem of online child abuse just then go away? My seven year old son has recited back to me the ins and outs of online safety. He knows how you must only talk to people you know in real life. 10/10 for his primary school, they have this one covered!

 

Based on research, the likelihood of this advice sticking throughout the coming years seems unlikely. Just as in real life, the problem of acceptable boundaries doesn’t go away, and as children grow up, relationships and friendships only become more complicated. What determines an acceptable relationship online or offline, can become more blurred. This creates a vulnerability to online child abuse.

 

The Teenage Years

 

The Children’s Commissioner Life in Likes paints the reality that as children move into secondary school, peer pressure allows online safety rules to become hazy. With loneliness and bullying to contend with, sometimes the online world can seem the better place. A place which doesn’t see their adolescent face becomes attractive. A place to unleash all the frustrations and stress of the school day becomes appealing.

 

The problem is that although the majority of adolescents would see a stranger in real life and know that that person is potentially harmful, a stranger online can seem safe. An online predator can easily appear to be similar to a child and hold the same interests. Equally, a teenager may enjoy online gaming and the now connected world this offers exposes them to a similar risk. A stranger that is amazing at playing a game could be idolised by a child. They may feel comfortable meeting in real life without knowing much about that person. Unfortunately, we know from many news headlines, how these occurrences can easily lead to a child being placed in extreme danger of exploitation and abuse.

 

Research seems to show that although children with low self-esteem and those that struggle socially seem to be more vulnerable to online child abuse offenders, actually even well balanced, confident children can be successfully targeted.

 

Online child abuse 

 

Save the Children Denmark wrote in their publication, 2015 Is it really that bad?

 

“The perpetration of sexual abuse is often preceded by a long process whereby the offender manipulates a child or young person to cross their own boundaries”.

 

The ICMEC in their Online Grooming of Children for Sexual Purposes-Model legislation and global review 2017 commented that they predict there are 750,000 predators online at any given time and that,

 

“Offenders can use the Internet and related technologies to find vulnerable children who meet their preferred sexual interests by scanning such sites to find a young person’s personal information before contacting them.”

 

Lack of Detailed Research

 

The IWF annual report 2017 has recently been published. It highlighted how there is a desperate need to understand the current extent of online child abuse. The charity feels that they are only able to piece together partial information from Childline, the Police, and Social Services. They believe an in-depth government study is needed to look at this problem in detail. The report states,

 

“An increase of 9% has been shown in calls to Childline in relation to online safety. There has been a 12% increase in child line calls about cyberbullying. There has been a 44% increase in calls to Childline about online child exploitation.”

 

Last week, the government released an interim report of “the independent enquiry into child sexual abuse’. In section 5 the report states,

 

“The review of existing research on the scale and nature of online child sexual abuse makes it clear that this is a complex and growing problem”.

 

It also highlights the problem of the rise in time spent online and the lowering of age to children accessing the internet. There is also the issue that the government believes the occurrence of online child abuse is under-reported.

 

Current Statistics in online child abuse.

 

As stated in the headline of this blog, the government interim report has highlighted an increase of 700% increase in referrals of online child abuse cases since 2012-2013. By the end of August 2016, police have reported an average of 3,500 referrals a month. Childline have seen a 20% increase this year in the number of children accessing their help about sexting. 12200 counselling sessions were given to children to tackle the issue of online abuse. With the under-reporting of this issue, there is worry that this is just a small fraction of what is actually going on.

 

Does any school practitioner now not know of at least one serious online incident that has occurred within their school community? Even if it is not caused by a case of online child abuse, a peer to peer exchange can have  a long reaching impact  in a child’s life. Moreover a simple  online exchange from a peer can open a child’s vulnerability to finding consolation from a predator online. Their coure could be changed dramatically.

 

Change in Law

 

Legally, there have been some developments so as to catch issues before they become more serious. In April 2017, legislation came into force bringing any sexual communication with a minor illegal. This mean online child abusers can be caught at an earlier stage than previously. In relation to this new law, Liz Truss Justice secretary stated,

 

“In a world of mobile phones and social media, our children are ever more vulnerable to those who prey on their innocence and exploit their trust. This new offence will help to us tackle the early stages of grooming, and catch those targeting children online or through text messages. My message is clear – any sexual communication with a child could see you behind bars.”

 

Early Intervention in abuse cases

 

The IWF recognised in their Annual Report that early intervention in online child abuse is key,

 

“By intervening as early as possible to stop abuse and ensuring children receive the right support at the right time we can help get children back on track. And of course, putting in support and safeguards which prevent abuse from happening in the first place ensures the best outcomes for children and society.”

 

What can Schools do?

 

Save the Children Denmark stated

 

“Barring children access to social media is the equivalent of sending them to their room a generation ago. It prevents them from participating in the social life that is constantly unfolding both online and offline.”

 

The Education People also state:

 

“An over reliance on banning and blocking can push children onto other platforms, cause them to hide their activity and ultimately prevent them from disclosing concerns.”

 

Open Policy 

 

As the quotes above from the Denmark study and The Education People highlight, keeping children away from social media and other chat forums potentially keeps them hiding their usage away. It encourages children to work out the boundaries of using social media on their own. At a time when students naturally want to follow what their peers do, it seems an appropriate time to tackle these issues within school. Perhaps rather than blocking any potentially harmful sites, schools should have a more open policy. A more comprehensive, homelike access could be allowed, but with clear rules in place. An intelligent monitoring system could detect any threats raised within any digital activity.

Rather than teaching lessons in PSCHE as a vague overview about the dangers of social media, would it be ridiculous to suggest that a method could be taken, age appropriately, to show children exactly how you can set up a profile safely. Maybe if they could see realistically how an unsuspecting student could be snared it could help them face the reality. On another note, the topics of predatory publishers and fake news could also be covered. Students could learn how to research with legitimate sources.

 

Early Detection in online child abuse 

 

With an open door policy to digital learning, there are tools that schools are able to use online and offline to track suspicious activity through intelligent monitoring. This sort of software can be linked to alert libraries that send out online captures to a designated safeguarding lead. This discreet software will enable the school to detect early if there are any child protection issues. Their safeguarding team can then put measures in place when alerts are raised. This kind of software is often pre-graded so that a degree of machine intelligence is used so as to avert too many risk captures. The software can also often be customised so that schools can avoid certain classes that will be raising online research, such as a lesson on The Crucible.

 

There are also options for schools to have a managed monitoring solution in which a third party monitors all activity in a school. They can let a school know immediately if there is a serious alert, and give regular reports on less serious alerts that have been raised.

 

How Should Schools Deal with Safeguarding Alerts?

 

Every school will be different and have their own specific policies in place. The Safer Internet Centre, Stop-CSE and The Education People all provide a wide range of free resources. Advice such as suggested safeguarding policies to guided advice for parents can be found. The Education People has warned there is a risk of knee jerk reactions to regional stories and how practitioners should be  careful in sharing information.

 

Kent County Council suggests,

 

“Warning against doing things may raise unnecessary fear and lead youngsters to sites they may never have visited”.

 

Having a good grasp of what is happening within your own educational environment gives you vital intelligence as to possible issues within your school.

 

Summary

 

• The IWF Annual Report 2017 has reported an urgent need for the government to create a study to assess the current extent of online child abuse and neglect as they can only piece together fragments of data from third party organisations.
• There has been a 700% rise in online child sexual abuse cases.
• Early detection and intervention is key in creating more positive outcomes for victims of abuse.
• There have been some developments such as the fact it is now illegal for an adult to send a sexual message to a child, and this helps police act on information before something more serious takes place.
• Schools can help students to stay safer online by adapting their teaching policy in relation to online safety.
• Schools could create a more home-like internet environment where only the very dangerous sites are blocked, helping students to become more digitally literate and more aware of the risks they face online.
• Schools could create a safety-net through intelligent monitoring so that they have better intelligence on their individual pupils at risk and alert them to any potential threats.

 

Future Digital

 

Future Digital offers an Intelligent Monitoring Solution. For more information, click here.

 

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