Protecting children from online sexual abuse
13 May 2022
Photo by PRASANNAPIX from Shutterstock
When 14-year-old Jordan first logs onto social media, his new Instagram account displays generic photos of nature. Yet as soon as Jordan begins ‘following’ friends and ‘liking’ content, his feed begins to fill with unsolicited sexualised images. The more he clicks to explore, the further he’s propelled down a rabbit hole of harmful and illicit content. Strangers also begin to reach out, encouraging him to share private details, including his location, age, and photos.
Jordan, in this case, is only an avatar – a proxy for a real 14-year-old boy created by one of Oak’s partners, the 5Rights Foundation, a UK-based organisation dedicated to ensuring that children can thrive online safely. To assess the dangers that children are exposed to on social media, 5Rights has created a series of avatars based on real children, ages 11 to 17, to document their online experiences.
5Rights has found that the online environment for kids is harrowing. Its research confirms what Facebook whistle-blower Frances Hauer has recently been testifying before world governments: social media is deliberately engineered to get children addicted to it – and it leaves children increasingly vulnerable to grooming, peer pressure, exploitation, and abuse.
Built-in features such as popularity metrics (‘likes’ and ‘friends’), rewards, and pop-up recommendations entice children to use social media compulsively, to overshare information and imagery, and to engage with strangers online. As many as 75 per cent of the top 12 social media companies use their algorithms to recommend children’s profiles to strangers. 
This has facilitated a global explosion of online child sexual abuse images. The Internet Watch Foundation identified a rise of 77 per cent of ‘self-produced’ sexualised images or videos – made for friends or strangers – between 2019 and 2020. Often created as part of a romantic relationship or as a result of grooming, these images become part of a permanent digital footprint that can be used to blackmail people, and can be shared widely and over time. A new survey  by Economic Impact and WeProtect Global Alliance also finds that 54 per cent of young people worldwide now experience online sexual harm before they are 18, including grooming and recorded rape. For LGBTQI children, abuse rates are even higher.
It’s an ugly picture. Yet there is also reason to hope. Until recently, the burden of protecting children online has fallen on parents, charged with the impossible task of monitoring their children’s every click. Societal efforts to combat online abuse, meanwhile, have mostly had to focus on getting child sexual abuse material or images removed from the internet after it’s been created and uploaded.
But now, thanks to responsive governments, civic organisations, and passionate activists (including Oak’s partners), the issue of online child sexual abuse has been catapulted into the global spotlight. Tech companies are being pressured to re-design their platforms so that child abuse is thwarted before it even happens.
Oak and our partners share a simple vision: we believe that children should be able to explore the internet securely and free from seeing or being a victim of sexual abuse. If tech companies tweak their social media designs, the tools that currently put children at risk can be transformed into the very tools that help keep children safe. It’s a solution that’s as elegant as it is imperative. The technology already exists; what’s needed is the will.
“The tech sector has the ability to raise the ceiling and to give children back their childhood,” says Baroness Beeban Kidron, founder and chair of 5Rights Foundation. “The reason that parents, teachers, and children feel overwhelmed is that this is not a problem that parents, teachers, or kids can solve on their own.”
5Rights has been instrumental in getting groundbreaking legislation, the Age Appropriate Design Code, implemented in the UK, making Great Britain a model for online child safety measures globally. To this end, Oak partners around the world are working to compel tech companies to adopt business and design practices that make child safety a top priority. This is as reasonable as insisting that automobile manufacturers install seatbelts in cars.
“When we get into cars, we take it for granted that seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock brakes will help keep us safer. The safety is built-in – by design,” says Julie Inman Grant, Australia’s e-safety commissioner and a board member of Oak’s partner, WeProtect Global Alliance, an international coalition dedicated to ending child sexual abuse online. “User safety should be as much a priority for the technology companies as it is for the food, toy, and automotive industries.”
Grant’s team has developed Safety by Design, a set of new standards, assessments, and practices for tech companies. This approach has been endorsed by the G7 countries – and has already been implemented in Australia. Safety by Design tools are being offered free online to any tech company in the world that wants to adopt them, available here: www.esafety.gov.au/industry/safetyby-design/assessment-tools
Similarly, Oak partner Parents Together, a US-based not-for-profit organisation that mobilises parents against child sexual abuse, has leveraged its ‘parent power’ to effect changes in products and practices at Twitter, Snapchat, and Amazon. After Parents Together identified significant illicit child abuse material and dangerous practices on Periscope, a livestreaming service owned by Twitter, it ultimately compelled Twitter to shut down Periscope.
Fairplay, another Oak partner working to prevent online child sexual abuse, is working towards the implementation of a code of standardised online protections for young people in the US similar to the UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code. This is backed up by a growing body of research showing that excessive social media use is linked to a number of risks for children and adolescents, including lower psychological wellbeing and an increased risk of depression. Additionally, social media platforms are being used to both share child sexual abuse material, and groom young users, and Instagram has faced criticism for failing to respond to reports of exploitation in a timely manner. This is why Fairplay’s campaign, Risky by Design, puts the onus on tech companies to make child welfare the centrepiece of media platform design – and holds companies accountable if they fail to protect children’s privacy. Recently, Fairplay succeeded in getting Facebook to delay and reconsider plans to release a version of Instagram targeted at children aged 8-13. Fairplay is also endorsing legislation in the US Congress, called the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, to prohibit design features that exploit young people.
The sad reality is that when real children get online, neither they nor their parents are equipped to fend off the risks they face from vast technologies. But Oak’s partners are determined to ensure that one day, kids everywhere will be able to use Snapchat with their friends, research the solar system for school, watch music videos on YouTube, or just goof around as kids, full of curiosity and creativity, without becoming prey.
Dr Rys Farthing, director of Children’s Policy, Reset Australia, who previously worked with 5Rights, says, “Our vision is that young people should be able to go online as much and as often as they want to – wherever they are – and be as safe as they are when they go to play outside.”
You can click on the various organisation names to visit their websites: 5Rights Foundation, WeProtect Global Alliance, ParentsTogether and Fairplay. These grants all fall under our Prevent Child Sexual Abuse (PCSA) programme, and within that our Accountability and Ending Impunity Sub-programme, which seeks to drive accountability of tech companies to proactively prevent online child sexual abuse. You can read more about the Prevent Programme by clicking here.
 Internet Watch Foundation (2021) `Self-generated’ child sexual abuse prevention campaign. Available from: https://www.iwf.org.uk/about-us/our-campaigns/talk-and-gurls-out-loud-self-generated-child-sexual-abuse-prevention-campaign/ (Accessed 09-02-22)
 WeProtect Global Alliance (2021) Global Threat Assessment 2021. Available from: https://www.weprotect.org/global-threat-assessment-21/ (Accessed 09-02-22)