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Learning through the lockdown: protecting your children from digital harm during coronavirus

April 03, 2020

THEIR classroom is a computer screen, their desk a dining table, their link to their teacher an email or video call. For most children in the UK school looks very different with the shutdown caused by the coronavirus.

The internet has been considered an essential educational tool for learners of all ages for some time, but since schools closed due to Covid-19, online learning has become central to the education of children across the globe. Assignments delivered via Teams, completed work uploaded to OneNote and tutorials on Facetime are just some of the methods schools are using to keep their children learning through the lockdown. For youngsters parted from their friends, game consoles, WhatsApp and SnapChat keep them in touch, while apps like TikTok and websites like YouTube and Chatroulette, an online chat site that pairs random users for webcam-based conversations, help them to unwind.

Few can argue against the benefits of the internet , especially in socially-distanced times, but for any parent seeking to reduce their child’s time spent online, the virus is the new enemy. A couple of hours maximum online has now increased exponentially and with that, unless safety measures are in place, come increased risks.

With more children online, it must surely be the case that those intent on grooming children will up their game, seeing it as an opportunity to exploit. Experts do anticipate seeing an increase in cases of online abuse, in line with usual increases seen typically during school holidays when children spend more time on devices.

As the lockdown progresses, social isolation begins to impact further and boredom sets in, experts fear that children may start to let down their guard and take risks. With the usual barrier of time restrictions on device activity lifted, they may begin to explore the online world and venture into previously undiscovered areas without knowing how to recognise the dangers.

The Marie Collins Foundation (MCF), which supports the recovery of children and young people who have been sexually abused online, is encouraging people to play their part in ensuring the internet is a safe place for children by reporting any sexual images or videos of under18s they come across to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which works to have illegal online content taken down.

Rhiannon Faye-McDonald holds a unique position within North Yorkshire-based MCF. She was appointed four months ago as a subject matter expert and an ambassador for victims of online abuse. She helps put the voice of victims at the centre of every aspect of the charity’s work and she works to educate young people, and the professionals who work with them, to understand the harm caused by online abuse.

She says: “Each time an indecent image of a child is viewed or shared the child is revictimised. It’s horrifying for a victim to think of the images being viewed and circulated online so it’s important that they are reported to the IWF and removed as quickly as possible. The IWF works with law enforcement and children can be safeguarded very quickly.”

As a vulnerable 13-year-old, Rhiannon was groomed over the course of one evening by a man who communicated with her via an online chat room. He pretended to be a woman and offered to help her get modelling work if she sent a topless photograph of herself, which she was coerced into doing. He asked many questions that allowed him to build a picture of Rhiannon – where she went to school, what her parents did, where she lived – and the next morning he arrived at her home when she was alone, pushed his way in and sexually assaulted her. Now she is keen to help other young people and their parents and carers to understand the potential dangers of the internet. Her advice to young people, especially during these unprecedented times, includes:

· Enjoy using the internet and social media as it’s a good way to keep in touch with friends and family, especially at the moment;

· If you speak to people that you haven’t met in real life just remember that people might not always be who they say they are or might not have your best interests at heart;

· Be careful about what information you share with people. Personal details such as your home address should always be avoided, but also be mindful that the smaller details, which don’t seem like much, can also form part of a larger picture which could lead to you being identified in real life;

· Never share anything that you don’t feel comfortable with. If you wouldn’t be happy to show somebody a photo in person then think about whether you are happy to share it online – it can easily be saved or a screenshot taken;

· If you have been tricked into doing something, don’t feel embarrassed. There are people out there who are very good at manipulating others to do what they want them to and sometimes they are so good at it that we don’t even realise they are doing it;

· Never be afraid to tell somebody if you feel pressured or uncomfortable about anything that has been said or done online, even if you might have done something you regret. We all do things we aren’t proud of, but the important thing is to stay safe and alert somebody who can protect you;

· A small mistake can have large consequences but if something has happened, it will not define who you are as a person for the rest of your life, even though it may feel like it at the time.

Of course, for some younger children the lockdown may trigger significantly increased use of the internet and their introduction to social platforms, which in turn may expose them to cyber bullying or peer pressure.

Young to mid-teens may be spending their time producing live video diaries to share online, for example on TikTok; over time the motivation to get more likes and views may encourage some children to escalate the explicitness or ‘daring’ nature of their content to get more attention. This kind of self-generated content may also result in negative comments and interactions, not just from people known to them but also others who message them direct on live postings. Young people need to be supported in how to deal with this. For this age group, sexting – where they share sexually explicit photographs of themselves – may also be a heightened risk.

For parents and carers, Rhiannon makes further recommendations:

· Talk to children about how they use their phones, which apps they use and how they work. Don’t worry about them knowing more than you – ask them to teach you;

· Make internet safety a regular, open discussion in the family. Talk about the positives and the things that worry you. Encourage everyone else to do the same. Make sure children of all ages are aware that anything they do online creates a digital footprint and the longer term impact of this; with older children discuss the possible consequences and how they manage this, encouraging critical thinking to build their digital resilience;

· Make sure young people know that they can always come and talk to you about their concerns and that you can help; reassure them that you just want to support them and that they won’t be in trouble; if something has happened they should know it's not a reflection on them, it’s a reflection on the person who took advantage;

· Encourage them to tell you about anything they come across online that they think is not right so that you can report it – if it’s sexual images of under 18s, contact the IWF;

· Signs to look out for can be tricky as young people may react in different ways depending on the circumstances; the impact of social isolation may also have its own effects that are difficult to differentiate. They may be more withdrawn than usual, anxious, upset, angry. They may start having problems with their friends. Generally, parents and carers know their own child best so look out for any changes in behaviour and then think about whether online issues might be a cause.

· Encourage some time each day without phones for the whole family, maybe at dinner time or for an hour before bed.

Another survivor who works with MCF suggests that, although many parents will be at home along with their children, they should still continue to monitor closely their online activity throughout the lockdown.

She says: “Don’t just assume children are always doing schoolwork and interacting with their own teachers and friends. Predators could exploit this situation to purport to be tutors who can help them and to build up trust and regular contact with a child.

“Parents should talk to their children and make the distinction between what a safe, less risky activity looks like and what an unsafe, risky activity looks like. It's going to be really tricky to keep children off the internet but perhaps by offering 'safe' solutions and educating people as to what the risk factors are, we can mitigate risk.”

Rhiannon adds that it is sometimes difficult for people to understand the harm caused by indecent images online because some people mistakenly believe that the internet puts distance between the perpetrator and the victim.

She adds: “Remember that it isn’t ‘just a photo’, it’s a real child who is being abused and needs help. This is a huge issue and we need everybody to work together to tackle it. Reporting sexual images of under18s that you come across is a quick and easy way to play your part and it can lead to a child being protected.

“I’d encourage everyone to talk about this with friends, family, co-workers. Ask them if they know what to do if they innocently came across an indecent image of an under18 online; if they don’t know then show or tell them how to report it to the IWF, and tell them why it’s important.

* For help if you’ve been a victim of online sexual abuse, contact the MCF via help@mariecollinsfoundation.org.uk

* For more information about how to report sexual online content of under18s to the IWF, visit iwf.org.uk

Share this article on social media:

“It is comforting to see that the Marie Collins Foundation is trying to address the issues of children harmed online and enabling front line practitioners to conduct work with children that is based on relevant research. I will be a regular visitor to the website and will be advertising the charity in the workshops I facilitate.”

Social worker, MCF training attendee

Marie Collins Foundation Partners