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Staying safe online - advice for young adults

May 11, 2020

Technology has never been more important as we live through these extraordinary times of social distancing and self-isolation. The coronavirus lockdown has changed how we communicate with our family, friends and colleagues. Boredom, and even loneliness, induced by having to stay at home is sending more people online for longer.

The internet provides endless opportunities for entertainment and escapism, things we need now more than ever. For young men, this often means online gaming – in the UK at least 43 per cent play games consoles at home.

Young men also make up the largest proportion of pornography consumers. One survey for the BBC in March 2019 showed that over three quarters (77 per cent) of 18 to 25-year-olds viewed x-rated content in the month before the survey*. Since the lockdown began, one major porn site saw a peak in use in the UK that was nearly 27% higher than would normally be expected**.

As the lockdown progresses, social isolation begins to impact further and tedium sets in, experts fear that young men may let down their guard and take risks. The extra time at home may increase the temptation to explore the online world further and venture into previously undiscovered areas, including spending more time looking at porn.

The fear is that, since they are spending more time on platforms that may contain sexual images and videos of under 18s, they could be at increased risk of breaking the law.

A campaign by the Marie Collins Foundation (MCF), a charity that supports the recovery of child victims of online sexual abuse, and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which works to make the internet safer by removing images of child sexual abuse, in partnership with the UK government, seeks to educate and empower young men to navigate the internet safely. In particular, it urges them to report any sexual images of under-18s that they come across online.

In the UK, viewing, taking, sharing and distributing sexual images of under 18s is illegal, even if you thought the person featured was older. There is a mistaken belief that if an image appears on a legitimate porn site that it must already have been judged to meet legal requirements, but this is not the case and viewers may be at risk of offending.

Young men have also been shown to have a gap in their knowledge when it comes to the law surrounding viewing sexual content. A survey of 18 to 24-year-old men carried out by Ipsos Mori found that:

  • More than a quarter (26 per cent) of those surveyed didn’t think that sharing, viewing or downloading sexual images was illegal if the young people featured were aged 16-18;
  • 17 per cent didn’t think it was illegal if they were under 16;
  • Nearly half (48 per cent) said that not knowing where to report was the main barrier that would stop them reporting indecent images of children.
  • Think – how old is the person in the image?
  • Remember – if they’re under-18, this is child sexual abuse
  • Report – do the right thing and report the URL anonymously at iwf.org.uk

The campaign by the MCF, IWF and supported by the government educates on how to report – that it can be done quickly, easily and anonymously at iwf.org.uk, clicking on the reporting portal and sharing the URL of the indecent content viewed.

In 2019 the IWF removed over 130,000 webpages containing criminal content, up from nearly 80,000 two years earlier. Since 2017, it has received 236 reports related specifically to the gaming sector, whether from gaming platforms or platforms dedicated to gamers, such as chat apps.

The organisation is keen to stress the anonymity offered by reporting and that its policy is not to disclose any reporter information to the police without the reporter’s consent, for example, if the information provided could assist in identifying the location, identity or age of the child featured and subsequently safeguarding them. Reports have led to the direct identification of victims via details in the images, with police alerted and children protected within hours of a report.

Angela Munoz Aroca, of the IWF, adds: “It is perfectly legal for someone who stumbles to report to the IWF, as long as they are not actively engaged in repeatedly accessing illegal content. They can report in confidence in the rare instance that they should accidentally stumble on child sexual abuse material when using the internet.”

Experts at the MCF see at first hand the impact of online child sexual abuse.

Chief Executive Tink Palmer explains: “This is not a victimless crime – behind every image is a real child. Unfortunately, some people mistakenly believe that because the internet puts distance between the victim and perpetrator that the harm is somehow reduced.

“In fact, online sexual abuse can lead to victims experiencing deep and long-lasting harm, with every share or view of their image repeating the harm again and again. For those who are old enough to understand what has happened to them, the lack of control they feel about their image being out there in the online world is deeply distressing and the impact can last for many years.”

Tink says safeguarding is a shared responsibility of all, including young adults.

She adds: “We all have a role to play in protecting victims from harm and we can all help to make the internet a safe place for children and young people. At this time, when more young people are online themselves it’s paramount that we ensure, firstly, that they aren’t drawn into posting self-generated sexual images, and, secondly, that they report anything of concern.

“To young men, I say keep yourself safe, don’t risk becoming an offender and do the right thing.”

Appealing on behalf of child victims of online abuse, Tink asks young men to:

  • Think – how old is the person in the image?
  • Remember – if they’re under-18, this is child sexual abuse
  • Report – do the right thing and report the URL anonymously at iwf.org.uk

For help if you’ve been a victim of online sexual abuse, contact the MCF via The Marie Collins Foundation or help@mariecollinsfoundation.org.uk

* Survey commissioned for BBC Three series Porn Laid Bare in March 2019 which asked more than 1,000 people aged 18-25 online in Great Britain about their relationship to pornography.

* * The peak of use of Pornhub recorded in the UK since the lockdown came on March 25, which it increased by 26.9% (pornhub.com/insights).

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“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