Lifting the Veil of Deceit: Fighting cybercrimes against children

How can we ensure children's safety within the online environment? Banner image: Shutterstock/Sonia Dhankhar

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Over the recent decades, different forms of cybercrime have become a significant global challenge. One of the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns has been the notable increase in screen time, which further expands the window of exposure to potential online offenders. Unfortunately, children are not immune to these threats. Although the range of potential online offences for adults is wide, children tend to be exposed to more specific forms of risk. In particular, exposure to harmful content, bullying, and abuse and sexual exploitation continue to be among the main threats children continue to face in the online environment.

In 2019, the UN reported that one in three young people had been victims of online bullying, noting also that social media platforms were the most common places to experience it. This is a worryingly high number, especially when taking into consideration the declining trends in many traditional forms of youth offending and victimization over the past two decades. Despite countless efforts to tackle the issue of online bullying, the nature of technology and culture of online communication means it is difficult to make progress. This also relates to the ongoing issue of hateful content being distributed online.  

Online grooming and online sexual exploitation and abuse of children continue to pose a serious global challenge. Technology has made not only the distribution and acquisition of such material relatively easy, but it has made children much more vulnerable to such forms of victimization. In the United States, it has been reported that 1 in 25 children has received an online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make offline contact. In the United Kingdom, 2020 was the first time over 10,000 cases of online child sex crimes were recorded by the police—a 16% increase compared to the previous year. Unfortunately, these statistics do not take into account the more passive consumers of abuse material. Although darkweb platforms are commonly associated with online drug markets, a study has suggested that over 80% of the user traffic is directed to child abuse material.

Read the OECD Recommendation on Children in the Digital Environment

Read the OECD Recommendation on Children in the Digital Environment

Technology is a significant part of children’s daily lives around the world, and many developing countries will face similar surges in cybercrime in the not so distant future. Modern schools are at the same time becoming more and more immersed in technology, further increasing screen time and exposure to technology throughout the day. This means that constant efforts are required to keep children and adolescents from potential harm they may encounter in the online environment. Therefore, recent news about plans for services such as “Instagram for children” does raise number of questions and concerns on how serious tech companies are in tackling some of the core risks children face online. Providing additional platforms for children to create and distribute visual content equally creates new opportunities for exploitation. For parents, it is good to keep in mind that children should have their right to privacy: it has been estimated that the average parent has shared almost 1,500 images of their child before their 5th birthday. A recent study even suggested that parental oversharing online might have long-standing future consequences on their children in the form of identity thefts.

Most of the popular social media platforms are designed with youth in mind, which raises the question of where to draw the line. Providing these services comes with the added responsibility of providing a safe and secure environment for these young technology users. Despite age limits, the rules are often too easy to get around, and the same goes for potential offenders as the online environment continues to provide a veil of deceit for those who are seeking to cause harm. Yet, the internet is also a resource for parents who wish to learn more, with useful steps to protect their children online and information to better understand the risks.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Child Well-being Privacy & Cybersecurity

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Matti Näsi

University Lecturer, Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, University of Helsinki

I am currently working as University Lecturer at the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy at University of Helsinki. I am also co-coordinator of the Finnish Crime Victim Survey. My main research interests lie within the online context, largely in relation to youth delinquency, media criminology, and cybercrime.