After a year of the pandemic and various lockdowns that required lots of online learning for children and much more time spent on social media due to a lack of available activities, there are significant concerns that Child Sexual Exploitation (“CSE”) is more prevalent than ever. This is due to a significantly increased level of online presence by children with seemingly less supervision by adults (i.e. children have not been in school where their behaviour could be monitored by school staff and/or there were other distractions such as playing with friends rather than being physically alone and online).
CSE involves a young person under the age of 18 being manipulated, forced or coerced into taking part in a sexual act in exchange for something. Such abuses include but are not limited to the prostitution of children, and children being coerced into sending naked pictures or streaming/filming themselves carrying out sexual acts. The offences could occur without a child meeting an adult in person ever and communicating over the internet makes it much easier for offenders to build up relationships with children before potentially arranging to meet or eliciting sexual behaviour from them.
The pandemic and resultant lockdowns have meant a significant number of children have been effectively physically cut off from friends meaning that the only way to socialise has been online. The increased use of social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat has enabled children to be in contact with a world of people that they may not likely have ever had access to prior to the monumental shift to daily life that took place in effectively forcing adults and children to work and study at home and socialise online as shops/leisure activities were closed. Prior to the pandemic, parents/carers would likely be working outside of the house in the day thus there could be more supervision in the mornings and evenings when children are back from school and school staff could monitor children’s behaviour in the day. Children could also physically see their friends thus the need to be online was not so great.
An unfortunate byproduct of the pandemic is that much more pressure has been put on parents/carers to focus on maintaining employment as well as ensuring their children are undergoing their education at home. As such, it is easy to see how difficult it can be for parents/carers to constantly monitor what their children are doing all day every day and how easy it is for children to come into online contact with offenders who may pretend to be a child themselves in order to get to know the victims and groom them into engaging unwittingly in CSE.
Reports from various Councils including Bolton and Wigan have identified an increase in the (reported) number of children involved in CSE during the pandemic and in Scotland, there are indicators that CSE is getting worse and tougher action needs to be taken to crack down on perpetrators.
It has been suggested by various organisations that try and protect children from CSE that there is a urgent need for more control over children using social media and who they accept as friends; especially when the need to connect over the past year has become so important.
Organisations such as CyberSafe Scotland have been taking steps to educate children how to use social media and the importance of ensuring social media profiles are set to private and to only add followers that they know. There are calls for campaigns for essentially a “reset” of social media use of children and to attempt to protect children from access to all the negative aspects of social media.
The Scottish Government launched a campaign in March called #CSEthesigns which was supported by police to provide more knowledge to both adults and children in respect of the signs of CSE and how to prevent involvement.
In what is an excellent starting point and that will hopefully be implemented in all schools in due course, schools in Jersey have taken steps to teach more than 6,000 children how to spot signs of CSE by creating information packs to be delivered in PSHE lessons. Assemblies will also be held to help children and young people recognise the signs of child sexual abuse and how they can get support.
It is key that parents are aware of the newer popular applications (such as TikTok) that children are using and to also try and control settings so that children don’t have free reign to all that is available as well as attempting to restrict the time spent on the applications/avoid devices in bedrooms etc.
It appears that the best way to try and minimise CSE is awareness; it is vital that all adults/parents/carers as well as children are aware of the signs and risk/dangers so that they do not engage in such activities.
Unfortunately CSE is a hidden crime and it requires children to become aware of the signs as well as parents/carers being aware of changes in a child’s physical appearance, self harm/challenging behaviour, going missing or being defensive about where they have been. Police say everyone can play a role in spotting the signs of CSE and the key in exposing CSE and preventing children from being abused will be the knowledge of children to spot signs and report accordingly.
Written by Suzanne Houghton at BLM (firstname.lastname@example.org)