By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Katarzyna UZIEBLO, PhD
Child protection and safeguarding are among the most challenging issues faced globally. The threats to children, new and old, are constantly evolving. It seems that every time we catch up and are aware of any given threat it changes and adapts. As part of his PhD, Kieran researched and examined Ulrich Beck’s idea of the risk society, which states that by the time we are aware of a risk it is often too late to change it and we instead must devote our time to risk management and damage limitation. This is very depressing from a prevention point of view; we desire to use existing knowledge to predict problematic behaviour and roll out interventions upstream to produce the harm from ever occurring. In child protection terms, this means identifying and working with at-risk populations (so at risk of committing an offence or at risk of being a victim), strengthening institution safeguarding practices, and upskilling communities about the realities of risk as well as how to intervene. Two distinct stories that highlight the challenges of child protection and safeguarding.
The first story is from the UK, where the online safety bill is being discussed, the core tenet of which is to keep children safe online from harmful material as well as risky (or more precisely dangerous) behaviours. The online safety bill has been discussed a lot over the past 12-18 months and has been through the hands of three Prime Ministers, with promises of a new wide-ranging bill that will redefine the online world and protect children. But this is seemingly not to happen, as with all policy it has been changed and altered, with core pieces dropped from the bill. One major portion was dropped this week, which was limiting access to legal but harmful material to children. The idea behind this change is that doing so would remove free speech and the right to choose from the online world. This is a strange argument; we have always safeguarded children in this way in the offline world by placing restrictions and verifications in place to make sure they cannot access inappropriate material. It begs the question of why we would do something online if we wouldn’t do it offline. This leads to the growing debate about the lived reality and the policing of cyberspace, and whether, how, and why behaviour is different on and off it? This then leads to another argument levelled against the tenets of the bill, which is that they are too hard, too complex, and too unwieldly to do. That should not be an excuse!
On a week where we are reminded of JFK’s famous statement about going to the moon (i.e., we do it because it is hard) we should refocus our attention on solving this issue. One response from the UK government is the use of age verification software and related policies, which we know is often a challenge and does not work, as parents often sign up for their children or allow them to use their accounts. Therefore, what next? We need tech and online companies to stand up and accept responsibility for what happens on their platforms, since only accountability changes policy and practice. What is the next big step forward in online child protection and safeguarding? And where is the corporate responsibility? Currently, it seems that we rely only personal and/or parental responsibility, which is not always as exacting or fit for the purpose as it needs to be.
This leads us to our second news story, which is about the explosion of child sexual abuse and exploitation in the Philippines through online platforms. Over the past 30 – 40 years we have seen the growth in sex tourism, especially in the far east, but over the past 10 – 15 years we have seen this evolve into cyber/online sexual tourism and abuse. The online sexual exploitation of children is a growing concern and often difficult to police transnationally. This means that the internet and the online environment has a role to play in preventing and responding to it, as it plays a key role in enabling it. The reality of the online sexual abuse of children, as with the trafficking of children for sex and the sexual exploitation of children is one of access, poverty, and hopelessness. All of this is set to increase with the current global costs of living crisis. How do we prevent sexual exploitation, both in person and online, when on some occasions it is being caused by the parents, family members and associates of the child? According to a report from the Dutch Centre against Child and Human Trafficking a family member is even involved in almost one fifth of the cases. On one level, it is about local education and prevention programs, but on another level its about the role of the internet in facilitating and not preventing its dissemination. Again, we hear narratives about the challenges of doing so, that it’s just too difficult and problematic. This time we hear that its because of culture and social differences; issues linked to cross-border and transnational working; that international law is sketchy at best; and the need for sovereign independence and the fact that it’s difficult to get a prosecution. All these things are true, to a degree, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it. The internet spans borders; therefore, should its content and usage not span boarders too? If the internet is being used to exploit children in one country by someone from another, shouldn’t they be held responsible and therefore be accountable?
We have reached the stage where we need to hold the online community responsible for its actions, because harmful behaviour offline can be just as harmful online. It’s the content and behaviours that make something harmful, not merely the medium. When we think about how we respond to and prevent online sexual abuse and the tools we use, we need to future proof these and therefore we need innovation, not reinforcement of old ways. Whether we are managing the risks that our children face online or the way that they engage with technology we need to look at it from all angles, with fresh eyes.