COVID-19 has created a three-fold “perfect storm” for abusers to groom children online by taking advantage of the crisis, the NSPCC is warning.
The charity said while tech firms have had to scale back on moderators who combat sexual abuse, offenders are seeing an unprecedented opportunity to target children who are spending more time on the internet at home, and may be feeling increasingly lonely or anxious because of the lockdown.
Last week Europol said they were seeing ‘increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material’. Current conditions will see children passing more time at home than ever before, with understandably much of their day being spent online. Much of this activity will be helping to educate them, stay in touch with their friends and provide entertainment, but it could also lead to an increased risk of sexual abuse and exposure to harmful content.
And with social media companies forced to send their outsourced moderators home, meaning they are relying primarily on artificial intelligence (AI) for child safeguarding purposes, the NSPCC is concerned that conditions are “rife” to be exploited by abusers.
The charity is worried that while AI is normally used to identify and triage harmful content, grooming and abuse, there may be less human moderators available to ensure swift action is taken on child abuse and grooming.
Andy Burrows, Head of Child Safety Online Policy at the NSPCC, said: “The impact of the coronavirus lockdown has increased online risks and brewed a perfect storm for offenders to abuse children.
“The public health emergency is creating major challenges across society, and like all of us tech firms must adapt. It’s vital they set out how they are prioritising protecting children by identifying and disrupting offenders with fewer moderation resources available.
“Social media and gaming sites are proving to be a lifeline for parents and their children as they adapt to being at home, but we must also recognise there are heightened risks.
“It is more important than ever for parents to have regular conversations with their children about what they’re doing online and to reassure them they can come to you with any worries.”
The NSPCC want tech firms to share with government the volumes of referrals they make during this period to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), in order track and identify child abuse risks.
It’s also imperative they share intelligence with each other about emerging and evolving risks, and how they are combatting abuse and protecting children in the current emergency.