By Kieran McCartan, PhD, Kasia Uzieblo, PhD, and David Prescott, LICSW
There is ongoing debate in many countries about the online grooming of children for abuse and sexual exploitation. The debate in the UK currently involves the online safety bill, which is making its way through the House of Parliament. Debates regarding how best to protect children are not new, and although it is an important topic, it is only part of a broader question.
Beyond efforts to end grooming are questions about online safeguarding, corporate responsibility, and who polices the internet. Unfortunately, not many governments are clamoring to deal with these issues; there are many divergent special-interest groups, ideologies, and vested interests. There are also legitimate questions about the limits of privacy and free speech. We often hear that an attack on the internet is an attack on free speech and that by limiting online behaviors we are limiting free speech and creating a dystopian, big-brother state. One often-unspoken perspective in this is the need to consider the crossover between online and offline social harms.
This week the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reported that children were at more at risk for online grooming than ever before (an increase of 82% in 5 years) They further reported that there have been increased levels of reporting alongside a need for more safeguarding. Although it is true that there is more reporting, recording, and observing of socially inappropriate behavior online (including but not restricted to sexually exploitative behavior) we need to keep in mind that there are a range of explanations for this beyond the inappropriate behavior itself. For example, there is better detection, more confidence in reporting, more police and justice reaction, and better-informed communities responding to it. Further, the world after the #metoo movement has seen a greater acknowledgement of abusive behavior (and calling it out when it happens) and better responses to it. And yes, there is also more acknowledgement of online sexual harm; but the question is what do we do about it?
In the UK, the online safety bill, although quite debated by this point, wants to hold internet providers and website owners responsible for content on their platforms and that they could be as culpable as the people who post on them. There is pushback to this by many who state that the internet is the last bastion of free speech, and that protectionism has gone too far. On the other hand, the internet is not the wild west of older times, and moderating content needn’t be invasive.
It is tempting to see these debates as centered exclusively on free speech; there is no question that this is a central concern. Too often missing, though, are coordinated efforts by experts from the various professional disciplines that contribute to the wellbeing of children: Victims’ services, child protective services experts, researchers who study those who perpetrate online offenses, and those with expertise in domestic and other forms of interpersonal violence. It is difficult to imagine how the internet can become safer without these voices at the table, collaborating with one another, and sharing knowledge.
It is well known that online context can affect offline behavior, shape attitudes, influence behavior, and result in abuse. In fact, it’s a two-way street, with offline behavior also affecting the online world. In many ways, the age-old distinction between these worlds may no longer serve society well.
Further, we have seen from conversations and research on incels, pornography, abuse, and violence against women and girls that the online and offline worlds are not segregated communities. We know from discussion with clients that online and offline actions and attitudes and impact their decisions to engage, or not engage in, abusive behavior. This is not to say that everyone is impacted by the internet and online context in the same way, but clearly the internet and online content can impact people. Therefore, if something is abusive offline, should it not be considered the same online as well? A clear example of this is a campaign from Australia discussing the harm of strangulation pornography.
This blog post started with the rise of online grooming and is ending with a discussion on the lived experience of online behavior. One may ask why these two are linked; the simple answer is the implicit and often-explicit online message that abusive behavior is acceptable. Our hope is that communities can get a better grasp of what really happens online, and what the implications are for the most vulnerable members of society. That requires stepping up and asking hard questions of ourselves, our communities, and the systems that are involved in them. We need to see the online world as an extension of the offline world, and vice versa, not just separate entities. The sooner that we come to terms with the full extent of abuse and exploitation happening online, the sooner we can do something about it.
The question remains as to how we then best meet these challenges. Holding providers and website owners more responsible may be a necessary move to motivate them to really do something about the problem, even though it is not hard to imagine the legal questions that will arise from this. It is all-important that we continue to have this conversation about our shared responsibility and that we do not shy away from the complex challenges and issues, whether about online or offline behavior.