The rise of online paedophilia

Few things in life are as heart-wrenching as much as reading or watching stories of how children have been exploited to feed the sick desires of adult predators. While many who commit perverted acts against children brazenly go about it in person, others hide their depravity under the anonymity of the Internet. Perhaps they do this out of fear of being punished by the law, desire to maintain their status, or for some other reason. Whatever the case is, such individuals are threats to the moral and natural workings of any society.

As we can all attest to, the Internet and related technologies are changing the way we live, work, interact, and entertain ourselves. From real-time communications to instant access to information it is undeniable that technology affords us the opportunities to be creative and social in innovative and interactive ways. I can go on and on to extol the benefits that come with the digital age; however, one thing is for sure: More than ever before, technology is making it easier for people to abuse children.

Perpetrators of this dastardly deed keep pace with technological progress. Their goal, far from solving mankind’s problems of hunger, climate change, poverty, is to use the Internet in more sophisticated ways.

For instance, the Internet has brought with it a global facility where paedophiles can extend their activities in a covert way. Around the world, reports of adults preying on children through the use of Internet ‘chat rooms’ are featured on the news with disturbing regularity. If anything, the digital age has demystified the taboo long associated with rape and sexual abuse especially in our part of the world where people are increasingly becoming more sensitive to responsive to such subject matters.

In this piece, I explore some of the ways paedophiles carry out their clandestine activities in cyberspace; the role of technology in curbing this scourge as well as what parents and guardians can do to protect their wards from online sexual abuse.

According to the 2021 Global Threat Assessment report published by WeProtect Global Alliance, the scale of child sexual exploitation and abuse online is increasing at such a rapid rate that a step change is urgently required in the global response to create safe online environments for children.

Did you know that over three million accounts are registered across the 10 most harmful child sexual abuse sites on the dark web? Apparently, this is the case going by the assessment report.

The Head of the Paedophile Unit (Interactive) in the United Kingdom, Darren Brookes, observed that there has been a significant change in the methods of operation of paedophiles in a short time. In one Parliament of Australia journal on Cybercrime and Internet Paedophile activity, he explained that the development of the ‘web cam’ feature allows for live streaming contents to chat rooms and Internet computer conferencing (also known as IRC or Internet Relay Chat).

The Internet is not bound by geographical boundaries; it allows paedophiles and child pornography users across the globe to swap their collections and discuss their deviant interests in the privacy of their own homes under a false identity. They are also known to prowl the Internet in search of unsuspecting and inexperienced children to lure into sexual perversions. On this note, the Internet Watch Foundation observed that there is a 77 per cent increase in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material from 2019 to 2020.

Although technology has enabled offenders to a harmful extent, it can also be leveraged to curb their operations.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence have proved to be invaluable in the fight against paedophiliac activities in cyberspace. Monitoring technologies and artificial intelligence systems operate beneath the surface of most major Internet sites, constantly scanning for signs of child exploitation, from images of children being abused to the codewords used by paedophiles as they share images.

Tech giants like Apple, Facebook, Google, and YouTube have all claimed that they have put up mechanisms to tag abusive material, making it inaccessible, and the reporting of such material to authorities. However, it is worth noting that these methods aren’t foolproof. After all, slip-ups do happen.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed children to online learning, tech companies need to step up their efforts to improve child safety online while preventing the use of live-streaming services for abusive purposes.

Online sexual harm is on the increase globally and it still remains a pervasive problem across the African continent. In light of this, governments should set up an Internet monitoring programme that can help local enforcement agencies develop an effective response to technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation and Internet crimes against children.

Where this already exists, governments can reinforce the programme to introduce forensic and investigative components, training and technical assistance, trauma services, and community awareness.

To ensure a safer digital world devoid of paedophiles and other sexual predators, we must collectively take action. For one, Internet users need to take it upon themselves to report websites, forums, lewd images, and comments that promote or incite sexual abuse to people with the authority to take appropriate legal action.

In this age, computer-smart children can easily use the chat room environment and could be inadvertently engaged by paedophiles. Rather than simply instill fear in them and call it a day, parents need to talk frequently and honestly with their kids about the dangers that lurk on the internet.

As parents too, they have a responsibility to supervise and monitor their children’s use of the Internet. Also, parents need to be alert to warning signs that may indicate their children are struggling with online sexual abuse.

Educational authorities such as schools and learning centres and camps should create awareness for parents and children regarding the safe use of the internet. Children are said to be the future of tomorrow; as such they need to be protected from those who want to ruin their tomorrow today.

PUNCH

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