Massive online sexual exploitation of young people


As the father of teenagers I have struggled with getting the balance right between safe-guarding them whilst online and yet allowing them to benefit from the internet in terms of learning, self-expression and socialisation. As someone who has grown up with technology and is very confident with it I always wanted to help my kids gain as much as possible from computers and the internet. Its worrying therefore  to see the rise of online bullying, sexual exploitation of young people (in particular) and recent incidents such as having my own Twitter account hacked (along with 250,000 others). Another recent worrying trend is that of the number of sexual blackmailers harassing and terrorising young girls online, as reported by the FBI.

So, what is the current state of play? Well, the 5th February 2013 was UK Safer Internet Day and a report has been published following this. This reports that a staggering 86% of 7-11 years-olds use some form of online communication tool (Facebook, Twitter etc.) and that this rises to 96% of young people age 11-19 years-olds. So its obvious that most young people are at risk of exploitation.

When looking at the experience of young people online, the report says 36% of primary school children (7-11′s) and 24% of secondary age children (11-19′s) said they have reported something online. This is worrying to say the least. What about convictions? Well, the number of people convicted of sex offences on children aged under 16 in England and Wales has increased by nearly 60% in six years. In 2005, 1,363 people were convicted while in 2010, it was 2,135. The BBC recently reported that 281 people had been convicted of meeting a child following sexual grooming on the internet, since it was made illegal in 2004.

The growth in the web has also seen a growth in the number of sites distributing obscene images of children. Here in the UK, the Internet Watch Foundation shuts down websites where images of child sex abuse are being shared and offered for sale.

According to the BBC, in 2010, the IWF’s annual report said that it knew of 14,602 sites peddling images. About 59 pages a day were added to that list. A recent uncover operation, Operation Alpine netted more than one million images and 6,000 films.

In the US, in the fiscal year 2011, United States Attorneys’ Offices obtained 2713 indictments, against 2929 defendants, for offences involving the sexual exploitation of a minor. This represents a 15 percent increase in the number of indictments over fiscal year 2007 (in which 2364 indictments were filed against 2470 defendants).

So, what can parents and others do to protect young people from the risks of online exploitation? Here are some tips:

  • Talk to your child about what they’re up to online. Be a part of their online life; involve the whole family and show an interest. Find out what sites they visit and what they love about them, if they know you understand they are more likely to come to you if they have any problems.
  • Watch Thinkuknow films and cartoons with your child. The Thinkuknow site has films, games and advice for children from five all the way to 16.
  • Encourage your child to go online and explore! There is a wealth of age-appropriate sites online for your children. Encourage them to use sites which are fun, educational and that will help them to develop online skills.
  • Keep up-to-date with your child’s development online. Children grow up fast and they will be growing in confidence and learning new skills daily. It’s important that as your child learns more, so do you.
  • Set boundaries in the online world just as you would in the real world. Think about what they might see, what they share, who they talk to and how long they spend online. It is important to discuss boundaries at a young age to develop the tools and skills children need to enjoy their time online.
  • Keep all equipment that connects to the internet in a family space. For children of this age, it is important to keep internet use in family areas so you can see the sites your child is using and be there for them if they stumble across something they don’t want to see.
  • Know what connects to the internet and how. Nowadays even the TV connects to the internet. Make sure you’re aware of which devices that your child uses connect to the internet, such as their phone or games console. Also, find out how they are accessing the internet – is it your connection, or a neighbour’s wifi? This will affect whether the safety setting you set are being applied.
  • Use parental controls on devices that link to the internet, such as the TV, laptops, computers, games consoles and mobile phones. Parental controls are not just about locking and blocking, they are a tool to help you set appropriate boundaries as your child grows and develops. They are not the answer to your child’s online safety, but they are a good start and they are not as difficult to install as you might think. Service providers are working hard to make them simple, effective and user friendly. Find your service provider and learn how to set your controls

These tips and much more advice can be found on the Thinkuknow website.

Steven Dale

Middle-aged father who works part-time as manager of a housing charity and keeps himself busy in various ways. Enjoys photography, music, film, reading, all things techie and generally spending time with people.