Online issues for parents and carers
Child sexual abuse images
The issue in context
There continues to be much debate about the definition of child pornography and, indeed, whether it should be termed child pornography at all: the word pornography suggests consensual sexual activity, possibly for commercial gain. Many now refer to this type of material as child sexual abuse images, which is indeed what they really are.
The issue here is clear: any pornographic image of a child or young person indicates that that child had been harmed or abused, while the act of sharing that image again and again further contributes to the violation and degradation of the subject of that image.
Sadly there is a market for this type of material, and the internet has made it easier for online predators (or paedophiles) to find, trade or sell such images.
Child sexual abuse images have also been linked to the grooming process. Grooming is the term used to describe the act of online predators befriending and influencing a child with the intent of sexually abusing that child. Children and young people are shown such images to ‘normalise’ such behaviours, making them more compliant to their abusers. Young people caught up in a grooming situation may also be encouraged to provide inappropriate images of themselves or perform sexual acts on webcam for the gratification of their abuser, or to act as a blackmailing tool in the future.
The legal definition of illegal material
Definitions of illegal material, and the offences that relate to them, vary from country to country. Article 9 of the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime (CETS No: 185) defines offences relating to child pornography as follows:
For the purposes of the offences outlined above, the term 'child pornography' includes material that visually depicts:
For the purposes of the convention, the term 'minor' includes all persons under 18 years of age (although there are provisions for a lower age limit in some countries, this may not be less than 16 years of age).
The full text of the convention can be viewed online.
Reporting child sexual abuse images
Internet users are encouraged to help in the fight against child sexual abuse images by reporting any such content, or suspected content, to their INHOPE hotline.
INHOPE is the International Association of Internet Hotlines, supporting hotlines worldwide in their aim of eliminating illegal content on the internet. INHOPE hotlines have formal and well-established procedures for the reporting of illegal content to law enforcement agencies in their own countries, and for exchanging information with law enforcement agencies in other countries.
More information about your local hotline, along with details of how to contact them, can be found on the INHOPE website.
Related issue: Sexting
A related issue here, particularly for children and young people, is sexting and this is a growing concern in schools and other organisations who work with children across the EU. Sexting is the term used to describe the sending of sexually suggestive or explicit messages or photographs, typically via mobile phone. While normally consensual in the first instance, sadly many images end up widely circulated or posted online, especially when relationships end. The originator quickly loses all control over the images, often with embarrassing and potentially devastating consequences.
A recent EU Kids Online survey found that 15 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds have received peer-to-peer ‘sexual messages or images [meaning] talk about having sex or images of people naked or having sex’, and 3 per cent say they have sent or posted such messages. In half of the countries across Europe, the risk of receiving sexual messages is below average, with Italy having the lowest level. The highest risk of sexting is encountered in Romania, the Czech Republic and Norway, followed by France, Estonia and Lithuania. The findings suggest that the majority of children across countries have not encountered sexting.
Further qualitative research from the UK has shown that while young people are increasingly savvy at protecting themselves from so called ‘stranger danger’ they are having to face a new problem of ‘peer to peer’ approaches with boys (in particular) constantly demanding sexual images. Sexting from peers worries young people more than stranger danger.
It is illegal to create, transmit or possess a sexual image of a minor. Many young people are therefore committing a crime through their actions, perhaps without knowing. This can have serious legal consequences: there have even been cases of young people being prosecuted for such activities, and/or being listed on sex offender registers.
Positive parenting strategies
A key parental strategy here is to be aware of the risks, but also to keep a sense of perspective. Although stories surrounding child sexual abuse images or online grooming make big media headlines, the actual likelihood of such issues occurring is relatively low. The key thing to remember if you or your children experience such images online, is to report them immediately to your INHOPE hotline as detailed above.
More generally, by adopting some basic principles, you can help to ensure that your children remain safe when using new digital technologies, while also developing their own resilience to online risks.
Choose your location wisely
Where possible, try to locate the computer in an open space in the home. This allows you to keep a check on what’s appearing onscreen, and deal with any issues that may emerge.
Obviously internet access is no longer limited to the fixed PC, with laptops, consoles and mobile phones all providing alternative ways to get online, but hopefully any ground rules you agree with your children in the central home location will transfer to their use elsewhere. It is also important that you take the time to speak to children and young people about the responsible use of web cameras and all internet-enabled devices.
Remember it is also possible to set the parental controls on most devices to restrict them being able to access the internet at different times of the day.
Use parental control tools
Parental control software for filtering online activities will typically offer filtering and blocking by a range of categories, and should block illegal content by default. It is important to recognise that filtering alone is not a solution. Many young people see filtering as an infringement of their rights if it is done in a covert way. An open dialogue with some sensible filtering is a far more effective tool that trying to ‘spy’ on your children to see what they are doing online. See the document on parental control tools for further information.
As with any technological solution to online safety, filtering tools should never be regarded as 100 per cent effective, and should always be used in combination with education and awareness-raising approaches. This will help to ensure that children and young people are able to develop their own resilience to online risks, wherever and whenever they go online.
As well as making use of parental control features on digital devices, it is also important that you work with children and young people so they understand how to change and modify their privacy settings.
Let them know it’s OK to block or disconnect
Let your children know that it’s OK to block ‘buddies’ or just disconnect from the service if someone or something is making them feel uncomfortable online.
Ultimately they are in control, and have a right to make decisions about who has access to them online. If they do choose to block or disconnect, it’s still a good idea for them to talk through the issues with a known and trusted adult: this can help children and young people to reaffirm that they acted in a safe and positive way, and can bolster their self-protection skills for the future.
Know where to get help and advice if things do go wrong
If you or your children do experience problems relating to online safety issues, it is important to recognise that you are not alone - there are a number of organisations that can provide help and advice.
Many countries operate national helplines, or visit your national awareness centre website for further information on a range of online safety issues, including contacts and campaigns in your country.