By Rachael Wong
The Australian Federal Police are warning parents of a potential increase in online child abuse as parts of the country are forced back into coronavirus lockdown.
There was a rise in online grooming and the circulation of child abuse material during earlier lockdowns and authorities fear the same thing could happen again.
This is particularly so for Victoria, which has been plunged back into lockdown after a new wave of coronavirus cases, and which has seen the number of child abuse images and videos being traded online more than double in the last year.
At least 7.4 million files of child abuse material were detected circulating online in the state in May 2020 - a number that police believe is significantly lower than the true level of activity.
A similar trend has been seen in places like the UK, where the Internet Watch Foundation saw a 50% increase in public reports of online child abuse images during lockdown.
While the overall crime rate may decrease during lockdown, the opposite is true for child exploitation.
“This kind of offending is almost 100 per cent reliant on online activity so the environment has been perfect”, said Detective Superintendent Jane Welsh, head of the Victorian Joint Anti Child Exploitation Team. We've got people isolated at home, in front of their computers and other devices. They're a captive audience, frankly.”
AFP Commander Jamie Strauss has warned, “Children are more likely to be targeted during the pandemic as they spend more time online with the possibility of limited adult supervision. The sad fact is that when children increase their activity online, predators also increase their activity and use it as an opportunity to try target and groom children.”
Welsh said police were seeing a lot of grooming-type behaviour, with adult men contacting young girls online and encouraging them to meet for sexual activity.
UK-based journalist Helena Pozniak writes, “Everyone’s been online for longer during lockdown. For children, that can be akin to standing alone on a street corner at night, say activists. Some kids are being cajoled and tricked into providing images and videos, which make their way into the hands of child abusers.”
Police are encouraging parents to have regular conversations with their children about online safety, to monitor their children’s’ online activity (especially on social media, gaming sites and instant messaging apps), and if required, to have access to their children’s devices and online accounts so that risky behaviour can be identified before it escalates.
“It’s important that you know what your children are doing online and it’s important they feel comfortable to come and speak to you about any concerning activity,” said Strauss.
“Children can be groomed in a matter of minutes. These offenders are often master manipulators, and their operations can be quite sophisticated,” said Welsh. “It’s really important that information about this type of offending is reported to police so that we can take action.”
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia