Protecting children from online abusers

·3-min read

Naked selfies shared by teenagers are being weaponised by online predators and contributing to an increase in child exploitation material linked to self-produced content.

As more children acquire smartphones earlier, predators have increased opportunities to access those "sexts" indirectly online, or manipulate and extort children into producing sexualised content, experts warn.

Australian Federal Police child exploitation investigator Constable Tom Clayworth has linked a rise in self-produced content to a third consecutive year of record-breaking reports to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation.

When children come up against these adults, who are often technologically sophisticated and manipulative, they are vulnerable and exposed, Const Clayworth said.

"These offenders are very, very good at masquerading as something that they're not," he said.

University of the Sunshine Coast senior criminology and justice lecturer Dr Lara Christensen believes that despite years of warnings about the dangers of sexting, many teenagers are still none the wiser.

She points to Australian Institute of Criminology data dating from 2015 that showed 38 per cent of children between the ages of 13 and 15 had sent a sexual picture or video or another person. Additionally, 62 per cent had received a sexual picture or video.

"One could simply hypothesise, unfortunately, what this data might look like now (since COVID-19)," Dr Christensen said.

Those photos and videos "can very well end up in somebody else's hands on some online platform, contributing to that big increase in child sexual abuse material reports," she added.

"The child may have thought they were doing something harmless during COVID-19 ... (and that) has now become extremely harmful."

Most teenagers also wouldn't be aware saving a naked photo of themselves was considered possession of child sexual abuse material, which is a crime, Dr Christensen said.

University of Melbourne senior research fellow Dr Gemma McKibbin warns the ability of children to access free pornography online essentially "grooms" them, so when they encounter predators and are instructed to engage in sexual acts, "in a way, they know what to do".

The experts are calling for parents and carers to have discussions with children about the dangers of sexting, after online child abuse reports rose by more than 60 per cent to 36,600 in the past 2021/22 financial year.

Const Clayworth warns that no site is off-limits for child predators, even on online games. Predators may offer to buy victims in-game items in exchange for child abuse material.

"(Parents and carers are) the first line of protection for children," Const Clayworth said.

"It's really important for parents to teach their kids about online safety and have an understanding and conversation about what they're doing online, and (that) kids can come and speak to them if ... someone's asked them for something online."

All children should have the right to use online apps and games and keep in contact with their friends, without the fear of sexual abuse, Const Clayworth said.

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Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for people aged 5 to 25)