Are we allowing strangers into our lounge rooms through our children's technology?

Young kids playing with technology while adults entertain 

You might recall being up to no good behind closed doors at home in your younger years.  But, our parents always seemed to have some kind of sixth sense when malfeasance was on-foot, and would eventually come knocking on the bedroom or lounge room door.

As parents today, we would like to believe that our children are just as safe as we were then, especially whilst we are under the same roof. But as technology has permeated our lives, and the lives of our children, an insidious reality has arisen—strangers can now chat online to our children—right under our noses.

While there are so many great educational and fun apps out there, a lot of them also have chat functions, which can open up the virtual door to predators engaging with our children.  Sadly, an increasing number of Australian children are being coerced into taking sexually explicit videos or images of themselves by predators online.

Over the past few years our Online investigations team has seen a rise in cases containing “self-generated child sexual abuse content.” Tragically, this is coming from children as young as 3 or 4, whose innocence and naiveté are literally being snatched away.

These are seriously disturbing scenes. One case involved a young girl around the age of 10, naked and being directed to touch herself via webcam by an online predator. The young victim was performing these acts in her bedroom, with background noise indicating others were home at the time. The predator captured this footage and uploaded it to a forum known to be a regular hunting ground for paedophiles.

Fortunately, our investigators were able to take action to have the content removed from the site within three days after it was reported to us. Working through INHOPE—our international partner network for referring child sexual abuse material—we identified the country of the hosting website and worked with local law enforcement to remove the video. Other victims have not been so fortunate, and there is certainly no guarantee this video has been permanently deleted. This may forever be part of her digital footprint. 

Thanks to improved internet connectivity and children’s access to internet-enabled devices occurring from a younger age, the potential for exposure to harmful content and approaches from strangers with mal-intent has increased substantially. More mainstream games, apps and social media platforms come with private chat or live video features that can enable virtually anyone to strike up a conversation with children online. Persistent predators pose as young people, asking unwitting children to commit unspeakable acts on video that they may not understand is detrimental. 

With all of the benefits the Internet brings, the dangerous consequences of handing over an internet-connected, camera-enabled device to our children cannot be ignored. Young people, especially young children and tweens, are not yet able to comprehend the potential long-term implications of their online actions. While they may be able to navigate an iPad better than adults, they have not developed the maturity, experience and resilience to cope such serious online risks.

Above all else, parents want to protect their children from harm. So it is important that if you give your child a tablet or smartphone, you lay down the ground rules and stay engaged in their online lives. From the moment a child takes their first digital swipe, we need to be educating them about how to use technology safely and set firm boundaries around that use inside and outside of the home.

The following guidance can help reduce the risk of your child being exploited online:

  • Get engaged on your child’s “digital playground”—know what sites they’re on, what apps they are using and who their “friends” are online
  • Teach your child how to recognise ”stranger danger” online, just as you would in the real world
  • Use parental control tools
  • Set safe search settings
  • Disable your webcam through computer/laptop settings
  • Disable access to smartphone cameras within apps
  • Ensure your child uses internet-connected devices in common areas of the home.

While prevention is paramount, it’s also worth knowing the signs that indicate your child is being groomed online. Some red flags in your child’s behaviour can include:

  • Being very secretive, especially when it comes to their online activity
  • Engaging with older friends, including boyfriends or girlfriends
  • Appearing withdrawn, anxious or depressed
  • Sleeping problems, including nightmares and bed wetting
  • Missing school
  • A change in eating habits or the development of an eating disorder.

As parents we are our children’s first line of defence against risks they can be exposed to online, and the eSafety Office is here to assist you at www.esafety.gov.au. Together, we can protect the innocence of our children, online and offline. 

A version of this op-ed was originally published on ABC online.


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