BY LEE ROBINSON
There are renewed calls for parents in Victoria to ensure their children stay safe online amid a surge in online sexual offending during coronavirus lockdown.
Offenders are using lockdown restrictions to take advantage of vulnerable children who may be spending more time online for remote learning and entertainment, authorities have said.
In some cases, perpetrators are grooming children and then blackmailing them to produce more extreme material, threatening to share the existing material if they do not comply.
University of New South Wales (UNSW) criminology associate professor Michael Salter said people are making false assumptions about children’s online safety that do not reflect the realities of the internet.
“For most social media platforms, including those that are child-focused, there is an assumption that the child will be able to keep themselves safe or that the parent will somehow be able to constantly supervise their child,” he said.
“There are lots of well-meaning, very informed parents whose kids have gotten into trouble online through no fault of the child or the parent.
“It doesn't take long for a kid to get into a lot of trouble. It can happen very, very quickly, even with a protective parent.”
Associate Professor Salter also criticised social media platforms and other industry players for not providing adequate guardrails for child protection.
“The expectation that tech companies do not facilitate the circulation of child sexual abuse material is being breached every single day,” he said.
“It's like taking your kid to the playground and feeling like you don't have to watch them every second because the playground is designed to be child-friendly – a lot of parents feel that way about some of the big social media platforms – but the truth is these platforms are designed in a really unsafe way.”
Neil Milton, general manager of child safety training organisation ChildSafe, said while remote learning was important for children’s continued education during lockdown, parents need to take proactive steps to reduce their child’s risk.
“It’s important that you talk to your children about cyber-safety,” he said.
Mr Milton, who is a father of three children under 18, said being approachable if your child needs help is key to their safety.
“If you don’t have an open relationship with your child, then something preventable can turn into a serious problem,” Mr Milton said.
The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) received more than 21,000 reports of child exploitation in the past financial year, an increase from 14,000 the previous year.
Police data suggests the amount of child abuse material shared on the dark net between February and March doubled from the same time last year.
A spokesperson for the AFP said they will continue to target offenders despite the lockdown restrictions.
“COVID-19 is no barrier to police continuing to target these offenders,” the spokesperson said.
“If they procure, access and transmit child abuse material, they will be found, arrested and prosecuted.”
Child sexual abuse material can be reported anonymously to the eSafety Commissioner at esafety.gov.au/reportillegalcontent
Crimes can also be reported anonymously to CrimeStoppers on 1800 333 000.
If this article raises concerns for you or anyone you know contact the 24-hour national sexual assault and family violence counselling service on 1800 737 732.