Studying in autumn 2020 during coronavirus

MDX academics explain how to protect children from online abuse during COVID-19 lockdown

22/04/2020
"In the current Coronavirus crisis, there’s more people online and less people operating online to protect them."

Middlesex University academics who have extensively researched online child abuse have offered advice to parents on how they can keep their children safe during the Coronavirus lockdown.

The University’s Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) have also urged parents to be vigilant about popular new apps such as Zoom, House Party and Tik Tok, which are being downloaded everyday by millions of young people.

The team of CATS academics, who have worked on major national and European research projects, are also concerned the COVID-19 crisis could see an increase in various forms of online abuse and they are advising parents to take these basic five steps:

  • Have a dialogue with children about online safety
  • Research the new apps being downloaded before allowing children to use them
  • Revisit and strengthen existing parental controls
  • Watch out for particular change of behaviour among children
  • Discuss peer-on-peer abuse

“This is a watershed moment because everyone is saying download apps such as Zoom and House Party to stay in touch, engage, communicate and participate actively in this self-isolating period but nobody has really done their due diligence on the defence mechanisms in place." Jeffrey DeMarco, CATS researcher

The NSPCC has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic has created the “perfect storm” for abusers because there are less moderators who tackle online abuse working and more children using the internet while off-school.

This warning came after Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, reported an “increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material”.

Jeffrey DeMarco, a Lecturer in Psychology who specialises in Forensic, Criminological and Legal research, said: “If you think about the perpetrators operating on the internet from an opportunist perspective, the current lockdown conditions provide the perfect conditions to go ‘fishing’ due to the increased presence of young people on the internet using their devices and parents/carers not being able to constantly keep an eye on their children and the content they are consuming due to their own new work-life balance.”

Elena Martellozzo, (pictured below) an Associate Professor in Criminology, worked with the NSPCC and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in 2016 examining the impact online pornography may have on young people.

She said: “In the current Coronavirus crisis, there’s more people online and less people operating online to protect them.

“Most people are working from home and even with the most advanced technological support our effectiveness and efficiency has inevitably been diminished.

“People working in law enforcement or child protection cannot do everything by working from home.

“So it is paramount to be proactive in this period of isolation otherwise we run the real danger that online abuse could increase.

“That includes more children being exposed to harmful images such as pornography or violent images that could upset them; or they might adventure themselves in the abyss of the dark web, with everything that it offers.

“There’s so much potential risk in the current climate.”

CATS are advising parents to be diligent as a wave of new apps are downloaded by children looking to stay in contact with friends, particularly Zoom, Tik Tok and House Party which are the top three downloads on Google Play.

Jeffrey said: “This is a watershed moment because everyone is saying download apps such as Zoom and House Party to stay in touch, engage, communicate and participate actively in this self-isolating period but nobody has really done their due diligence on the defence mechanisms in place.

"I have heard very little safeguarding concerns coming from schools themselves in setting up alternatives for the pupils to use in keeping in touch and engaged.

“House Party is similar to Skype in that you can have multiple different camera views and talk to people, but there’s a lock feature, so if two people are having a conversation on House Party, one of us would have to lock the conversation to not allow random strangers to come into our conservation.

“So what’s happening in some cases is people are just trolling through this app and listening into conversations about people, finding out information about people and taking screenshots.”

He continued: “Young people no longer socialise with text messages or WhatsApp, it’s all about sending video and voice notes to each other or through live streaming.

“A common issue with protecting young people online is that the adults responsible for safeguarding children are often behind the curve of the new ‘hot app’ which is being used.

“What’s different this time is it is essentially a gold rush with hundreds of new apps and platforms popping out and parents and carers have not got the time to keep on top of the situation.”

Jeffrey and Elena have recently completed large research projects funded by the Centre of Expertise of Child Sexual Abuse on the sex offending and another one financed by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reviewing the online watchdog’s key performance indicators and desired outcomes in safeguarding cyberspace from illegal content.

Read the CATS team's tips to protect children from online abuse during COVID-19 lockdown

Find out more about the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies

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