Bullying, sexting and sexual exploitation are not the only online dangers!

Cyber bullying and online sexual exploitation are not the only dangers that lurk on the world wide web for children. Here we look at some of the other safeguarding risks that young people may be exposed to, including radicalisation, criminal exploitation and exposure to violent media.

Exposure to pornographic material and violent media.

There is no doubt that many children are over exposed to sexual and violent material. Television, video games, music, movies, advertisements, magazines are just some of the platforms that allow young people to access inappropriate information and imagery. Online content is increasingly the easiest method for children to access information. It is their preferred medium and therefore poses a huge risk to parents, carers and safeguarding professionals. To any child with unsupervised access to the internet, it provides the potential to access almost limitless images portraying uncensored violent and sexually explicit content. Exposure is also occurring at an increasingly younger age with some children as young as 5 years being proficient in surfing the web.

Pornographic Material – Research shows that young people who are exposed to media glamourising, sex, violence, drink and drugs, are more likely to engage in those behaviours themselves. Exposure to sexual content leads to increased chances of underage and potentially high-risk sex such as:

  • unprotected sex
  • multiple sexual partners
  • harmful and violent sex

Accessing pornographic material for any child that has an internet enabled device, takes but a handful of taps. According to the NSPCC and estimated 1 in 5 children aged between 11 and 16 have accessed an adult site. Such is the volume of available free internet pornography; the government plans to introduce the Digital Economy Act 2017 which proposes an age-verification system for websites that contain pornographic content. The act will give the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) powers to make internet service providers restrict access to those pornographic sites, that do not have robust age verification systems in place.

This piece of legislation was due to be enacted this month (May 2018) but there have been several issues with its introduction. Critics say the legislation has been ill-thought out and is unworkable. One of the main sticking points is that it would force adults to register and provide porn sites with their personal details. This hasn’t gone down to well and has led to a debate about censorship and over-regulation. Regardless of the moral debate, the legislation only applies to UK based providers and given the majority of porn sites are USA based, it is questionable how effective the legislation will be. There is also the fact that most social media sites have a minimum age restriction to join, but most are easily circumnavigated by young people who have the will and inclination to use the sites. The chances that they would do the same with porn age verification is high. These are just some of the issues and at the time we write this piece, the legislation has stalled.

Regardless of whether a child intentionally try to access porn, there is always the likelihood that children will ‘accidnetially’ be exposed to inappropriate pornographic material. In January this year Google was forced to remove 60 apps from its Play Store after many featured pornographic adverts targeting children. The apps had been infected with malicious code called “AdultSwine”.

Violent Media – Over the last decade there has been much research into the effects on young people to being exposed to violent media. Most Psychologists agree that prolonged exposure to violent media can be harmful, leading to increased aggression, poor social skills and limiting empathy for others.  Violent media can include scenes of:

  • torture
  • genocide
  • images of war
  • rape and sexual violence
  • cruelty to animals
  • domestic violence
  • gang violence

Our Comment: Whilst most Psychologists agree that prolonged exposure to both violent media and extreme pornography can be harmful, opinion is often divided as to whether this then leads a person to commit violent or sexual acts. Earlier this year mental health experts from the American Academy of Paediatrics warned that fear-inducing videos could affect the development of the brain in young children. They said that repeatedly viewing inappropriate content can have an adverse effect on the developing brain. Our view is that there are enough tragic cases that can be cited as examples to suggest that in some individuals, habitual exposure to violence and extreme pornography fuels them into acting out what they see on the screen. Regardless of whether they go on to commit criminal offences, early exposure to pornography and violence in children will have a significant impact on a child’s attitudes and outlook towards forming friendships and sexual relationships. It may also have a significant effect on their future mental wellbeing.

Extremist ideology on the Internet

Online radicalisation is a huge and worrying issue for the government, law enforcement agencies and the security services. Terrorist and extremist organisations have long since recognised the power of the internet to preach their ideology and use it as a tool for recruitment and radicalisation. For safeguarding professionals, this area presents great challenges around how we identify young people are at risk of radicalisation and the actions we take to divert them away from the dangers.

Online Gaming

Many video games are now played online with children connecting directly to other players over the web. If a child is connected, even through a game, then they are vulnerable to online offenders. Roblox, a virtual reality game aimed at young people between the ages of 8 and 13 allows young people to immerse themselves in character and tour 3d environments, be contacted and meet other characters (controlled by others) all within the game. Children are able see other characters who can be naked and carry out inappropriate acts. Each user can have up to 200 friends. It is just one example of a game where this virtual world is used by predators to groom children.

Social Media Games

Social media games are rare but when they do surface they can spread quickly from country to country and some may present a real danger towards vulnerable young people. Examples of dangerous social media games have been:

The Blue Whale Challenge – an anonymous ‘master’ challenges people to complete a series of tasks over 50 days, ending in the person taking their own life. The tasks are initially simple but quickly become increasingly dangerous. The game apparently originated in Russia and there have been unconfirmed reports that it was linked to the deaths of two teenage girls.

Game 72 – a young person is dared by their friends to go missing and disappear completely for 72 hours, basically fall off the face of the earth. The game was said to have originated on Facebook.

There is no evidence that The Blue Whale Game and Game 72 actually existed, and both are likely to have been hoax’s circulated by rumour across the web. Both games, had they been true, pose significant risk challenges for safeguarding professions. Whilst many games may be false, there are several that are not. One confirmed game was the ‘Eraser Challenge’ where children were encouraged to use erasers to rub away the skin on their arms, often while reciting the alphabet or other phrases. Players compare the resulting injuries, and the most injured player is the ‘winner’. The implications for this game are obvious – physical burn injuries which may lead to serious health issue if they become infected.

Another recent and very real game was the ‘Ikea 24 Hour Challenge’, which involved encouraging people to hide in large shops and warehouses overnight and then the following morning, sneak out undetected. This one was named after Ikea after that store was targeted in various countries with ‘players’ hiding in wardrobes. Ikea were adamant that if anyone was discovered in their stores overnight , they would pursue a prosecution. Many other games target vulnerable children, encouraging them to carry out acts such as bullying others, self-harm, commit dangerous dares or follow a particular dangerous regime or trend, e.g. encouraging eating disorders.

Online Entrapment

There will be occasions where an online predator’s motivation won’t be sexual exploitation or grooming, but will be even more sinister in nature. Predators can target and identify a young person for very serious crimes e.g. rape and even murder.

Online Stalking

Young people can become the victims of cyberstalking. Suspects can be strangers, people they know or an ex-boy/girlfriend. A clever and proficient cyberstalker can harass and stalk a person just as easily as if they were physically stalking the victim in person. They can take over a victim’s account, steal personal and financial information, pry into a person’s private life, create false profiles, spread malicious gossip, discredit a victim on social media and send threats.

Identity Theft

Often associated with adults and rarely seen as an issue for young people. However, children are also highly likely to become victims of identity theft. It is often beneficial for offenders to target young people about to enter adulthood, purely because their credit history is healthy.

Targeted Online Marketing

In March this year Facebook came under the spotlight after it  was revealed that data held by the company on 50 million people had been improperly accessed by the political consultancy company, Cambridge Analytica. They had allegedly used the information specifically to target voters to influence the 2016 US presidential election. This led to numerous other media stories concerning how much personal data social media platforms hold on their users, how they store that information and who they share it with. Recently in the US, Facebook, Google and YouTube have been criticised for collecting data from children aged under 13 by using their browsing habits and then targeting them with advertising, all without their parents’ knowledge or consent. The introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will tighten up the rules around data, and for social media companies it should mean that if they want to track and use a customer’s data for advertising, they must state what data will be collected, how it will be used and obtain explicit opt-in consent. However, it is unlikely that when a child signs up to a social media platform, they care about the privacy information within the terms & conditions. The bottom line is that if a child puts their private life out there on social media, then there is a fair chance it will be sold on to other commercial companies who will use it to target and manipulate them commercially.

Criminal exploitation

The use of the internet by criminal networks (County Lines) and gangs to recruit and exploit young people is a growing trend. Children as young as 11 are being recruited with the most common age being 15 -16. Whilst most initial contact is carried out on the street and in schools, gangs and organised crime groups are increasingly using social media to entice young people in. Many street gangs are using social networking sites to promote and showcase their image, whilst individuals use it to display their gang affiliation and mock rival gangs. Increasingly gang fights are being filmed and posted online. In the USA law enforcement agencies have coined the term ‘cyber gang-banging’ for this recent development. Whilst there is no direct evidence of recruitment through the internet, it is the promotion of gang culture that makes that lifestyle attractive to young people and therefore poses a challenger to us as safeguarding professionals.

In the UK the use of social media by gangs has been highlighted by the increase in knife related violence and the murder in London in the first part of 2018. Several prominent people, including the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, have suggested that violent imagery being shared online amongst young people is fuelling gang related violence. One news article described how YouTube, Snapchat and other platforms are used by gangs to celebrate and brag about shootings and stabbings, shame police witnesses, escalate feuds and feature acts of violence. Most media platforms claim they have policies that adopt a zero-tolerance approach towards videos that feature and glamourise gang related violence. However, this does not prevent hundreds of videos being in circulation, and the media platforms making money by attaching legitimate advertising to them.

Suicide and Self-Harm Websites

It is not difficult to type in the word ‘suicide’ into a search engine and find professionally created pro-suicide websites, with instructions on how to take your own life. These can include sites where other people actively promote and encourage visitors to the site to take their own life. If you bear in mind that if a person visits a site like this, they are already in a very bad place. Any active encouragement by other likeminded or manipulative people, is likely to have a significant and potentially tragic impact. In many cases the influence of these websites is only revealed where a family or police find details of the websites on the digital device of the deceased.

Illegal Prescription Drugs Online

Another emerging safeguarding issue is the availability of prescription drugs that are now being marketed and sold online. These are being sold illegally to young people through social media. In  February this year, a BBC investigation reported that the prescription drug Xanax was being sold illegally to children on social media sites. Xanax (Alprazolam) is a minor tranquiliser used to treat anxiety and must be prescribed by a medical professional in the UK. However, it is widely used and available in the US and is seen by many young people as a recreational drug. It has a number of potential side effects and is highly addictive. Medical experts warn that overdoses can be fatal particularly when mixed with alcohol and other drugs. The BBC quoted the charity Addaction who said that children as young as 13 had bought it online. The BBC identified adverts for the drug on social media platforms Instagram and Facebook. This is not an isolated incident, nor is this the only drug that can be obtained via the web. Other drugs include Valium , Viagra, Fentanyl, Pregabalin, Oxycontin, Norco, and Anabolic Steroids.

This article is not intended to deter parents, carers and safeguarding professionals from allowing children and young people to go online. The internet is a powerful tool that used wisely , can educate and help develop children and young people’s skills and opportunities. The key to allowing children to use the internet safely, is equipping yourself with the knowledge about the potential dangers that they may face. Only by knowing the safeguarding issues , can we begin to put in place the measures to reduce the risk.

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