At the age of 10, Lucy’s son was not on any social media. It was only when his young peers were messaging each other on the app Snapchat at his birthday party last October that his mother agreed he could download it – “reluctantly”.
“I don’t use Snapchat and don’t know much about the platform so I said he could use it under my supervision,” says Lucy, who lives in regional Eastern Victoria.
Grooming, blackmail and extortion of children to gain child sex abuse material has increased, as has live-streaming abuse.Credit:istock photos
As someone who works in education and had attended a cyber safety for parents talk only six months prior, she felt she had a handle on managing safe use of devices with kids.
“I have always known the (child safety) risks of Facebook and Instagram, but not necessarily Snapchat. That’s why I allowed him to have those apps. I have to say I did know the risks of him being on Fortnite – but I didn’t realise the risks were so imminent.”
One night after Lucy had removed her son’s iPad as per the family routine each evening, she heard him talking to someone.
“This guy he had met on Fortnite (and who asked to be added as a friend on his Xbox account) had instructed him to go and find his iPad and take it back,” said Lucy, who cannot be identified due to laws around naming child sex abuse victims.
Kids of six, seven or eight are clicking on a link that can take them straight to a live streaming site if they’ve got a webcam on the device.
“I snatched the iPad out of his hands and scrolled through; some previous Snaps had been deleted [the app defaults to delete after a short time] but the guy was still sending pictures when I had it in my hands, genital pictures, of him ejaculating and things – to a 10-year-old boy.”
Police discovered the boy had been added to six other accounts by the perpetrator, which suggested to the family that more than one person was involved with trying to groom him. Her son has experienced depression and is receiving counselling from the local office of the Centres Against Sexual Assault.
At the time the grooming moved to image sending on Snapchat, he had had an account on the platform for four days.
Research to be released on Monday by the University of New South Wales associate professor of criminology, Michael Salter, and Dr Tim Wong of the Gendered Violence Research Network, will reveal this scenario is far from unusual as online predators ramp up and diversify their activity since children have become accustomed to spending far more time online in the pandemic.
Reports of blackmail, extortion and threats to children to coerce them into generating sexual abuse images and live-streaming of sexual acts, often done at home and sometimes with parents audible in adjacent rooms, have all increased, which is consistent with advice from Australia’s office of eSafety and reports from safety consultants.
Commissioner Julie Inman Grant says there has been a 90 per cent increase in reports of online child sex abuse to her office since the pandemic started, and “something like 14,000 cases have been investigated that had to do with child sexual abuse material, the highest number ever; and we’re on track for breaking that record”.
Four variants of a child “sextortion” schemes circulating after Australian lockdowns began just before Easter 2020 caused a 600 per cent increase in reporting rates on the normal flow.
Associate Professor Salter says the research, done from surveys and interviews with investigators from police and government agencies and through their own observation of offender behavior on the dark web found perpetrators had begun to share strategies and collaborate to get children onto abuse sites.
“There was a process of skilling up through the abuse community,” he said. “There are competitions among online offenders competing for the best new webcam material; they have really intensified their reliance on online strategies.”
Investigators and police reported rates of adults pretending to be minors for a sexual purpose, threatening or blackmailing minors and trying to meet minors offline for sexual activity had all increased significantly.
“Administrators on dark websites were celebrating the fact traffic on the sites was doubling and offenders started to share strategies about how to get kids online and particularly to live streaming platforms,” said Associate Professor Salter.
“There was a real focus on luring kids onto live streaming platforms and then tricking them into doing sexual acts and recording sexual acts.”
“Kids of six, seven or eight are clicking on a link that can take them straight to a live streaming site if they’ve got a webcam on the device”.
Laura, a teacher from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, saw the foster child living with her being groomed in real time, and later uncovered evidence of serious online sexual abuse. She cannot be identified due to the girl’s age.Credit:Eddie Jim
The research, titled The impact of COVID-19 on the risk of online child sexual exploitation and the implications for child protection and policing, was commissioned by the office of eSafety.
Laura, a mother of two young children and also a foster carer, also saw in late 2020 how efficiently and devastatingly online predators can affect children.
Late last year she, her husband and children aged four and one had an adolescent girl living with them who had at her previous home been allowed “unlimited, unfiltered access to the internet”.
“She asked me if she could use a platform called Discord which was how she kept in touch with her friends. She was allowed to use that while sitting next to me on the couch, and that was how I noticed something strange going on,” said Laura, a teacher who lives in Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs and also cannot be identified due to the age of the victim.
After the girl was communicating with someone online with poor written English, who then called her with a well-spoken American accent, Laura and her husband realised multiple people were using the account.
It led her to investigate the girl’s activity online and discover that while living elsewhere she had been approached by a “12 year-old Russian girl” who began by asking her “if I send a picture of my naked self, could you send me one of yours because I like to compare Australian and Russian bodies”.
“The young girl had sent everything she had requested,” said Laura, “and what they had disclosed [in terms of nude material and information] was nothing compared to what the young girl in our care disclosed”.
The girl ended up experiencing significant trauma due to the videos and photos she had shared, says Laura, “because of what happened on the internet and having been violated online”.
It was the second experience Laura’s family had had with a young person who had been preyed upon by child abusers online, and has caused Laura to enforce extremely strict controls on her children’s access to any internet-connected device, something she believes many more parents should consider.
“We thought we were pretty good but we realised after her experience that we need a device-free house. We don’t use devices around the kids except to take phone calls, we do emails after the kids have gone to bed and all the internet capabilities of the TV are turned off except Netflix and that is set to kids’ channels,” said Laura.
“My four year-old has never touched a device in his life, nor has my one year-old, and my advice is to maintain a device-free house as long as you can. Then, it should never be allowed where the screen can’t also be viewed from behind [the user],” she said.
Cyber safety expert and 27-year veteran of Victoria Police, Susan McLean, said she has experienced “a huge increase across the board in young people being groomed online”.
“It’s been that perfect storm where kids have been online more trying to make connections, parents have taken their foot off the pedal because it’s hard trying to work from home [with children there] and predators are also working from home or have lost their job and could groom kids during work hours,” she said.
“[Predators] are not sitting in the office, so they have the opportunity to connect with large numbers of children then, and then you add in children using apps clearly not suitable for them and parents being oblivious to what’s going on.”
Cyber safety expert and ex-policewoman Susan McLean says children are being coerced into live-streaming sexual activity.Credit:File photo
She warned parents that they must understand that the web is “first and foremost a 100 per cent adult world”.
“You are putting your little child into an adult world where their safety is going to come down to your ability to be an active participant in that world, you can’t hope for the best no matter how tech-savvy your child is. Their brain development is not aligned to that and they’re going to be an easy target.”
The eSafety commissioner says the University of New South Wales research aligned with what investigators at the Office of eSafety are seeing: “This is one of the first pieces of research in which I’ve heard other law enforcement agencies and hotline investigators saying ‘we’re looking at this proliferation of preventable abuse, particularly self-produced content [in which children are tricked or coerced into filming or streaming sexual acts on themselves or a sibling]’.”
Former Microsoft and Twitter executive Ms Inman Grant says platforms were not doing enough to prevent “dark patterns” of online child sexual offending, to curb the use of fake or imposter accounts or to introduce safety-by-design prevention features.
“There’s a feeling of helplessness setting in across the community, kids are at risk and being targeted by predators, they know how to find kids at risk, to ingratiate themselves, build trust over time.
“What we keep seeing with capping [capturing] of self-produced content is that it starts slowly, it’s a courtship, they’ll ask for a little sexy Skype or topless shot and then it escalates,” said Ms Inman Grant.
“This is where you get sextortion, which is incredibly damaging. Once kids get into that spiral [of sending images or footage and being threatened if they do not send more the material will by released] the worse it gets the less likely they are to want to talk to parents.”
Criminologist and researcher Michael Salter agrees lack of safety built into platforms means grooming can also happen quickly.
“We used to talk about grooming as quite a longterm strategy, offenders spending a long time building up a relationship. But we’re finding that can happen really quickly online, really in a matter of minutes.
“All the offender needs is to get [the child] to take the device into a bathroom or bedroom and within five minutes if they’ve been able to solicit sexual activity online that’s what they’re looking for. They may never get back to that child or they may use that material to blackmail the child.”
He criticised platforms for being focused on enlisting engagement but providing little to no protection for children and said police and hotline workers all noted “how unsafe the designs of these platforms are”.
“These online social media platforms and online streaming platforms have not been designed with any guard rails in place; they can be anonymous, they may be encrypted but there are no identity or age obligations, no legal obligation visited upon these platforms to ensure there is no predictable risk of harm to children.
“It’s extraordinary when you think about regulations for the toy industry, for example. We expect toy manufacturers to produce toys children are not going to choke on, but we haven’t put those guard rails in place on the online environment.”
Both mothers who saw first hand how easily predators can find children said they wanted other parents to be more aware of it, and to tighten control of what kids do online.
“A friend said to me, ‘We’ve got a four year-old and I can’t wait until the kids get iPads next year at school, how cute will the games be and we can watch funny YouTubes together etc’, and I told her what happened to us and started crying in the park,” said Laura.
“She said, ‘I can’t believe I was going to let my daughter go on an iPad without supervision’. It’s a real problem that people don’t really know enough.”
If you or anyone you know needs support call Kidshelpline 1800 55 1800, Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636. eSafety support can be found here.
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