Nicholas Falconer

Child porn, bullying and nudes: Teen face online danger

YOUNG people are at risk of sexual exploitation, cyber-bullying and being used as currency on the dark web, according to a report on children and rapidly advancing technology.

Almost a fifth of Australian teenagers have experienced cyber-bullying and been exposed to inappropriate content on the internet, the UNICEF research found.

Smartphones are fuelling a "bedroom culture", with online access becoming more private

and less supervised. Teens now spend an average of 18 hours online each week - nearly double the time spent on the internet by Australians aged over 15.

The worst cases uncovered in the global report included a boy nearly driven to suicide by online bullying; a 14-year-old girl whose ex-boyfriend created a social media profile featuring nude pictures he made her take of herself; and an eight-year-old girl in the Philippines forced to perform live-stream sex acts by a neighbour who operates a child sexual abuse website.

In Madagascar, a 17-year-old girl was asked by her teacher for $400 in exchange for a passing grade. Desperate to find the money, she reached out to a man she'd been in contact with online. "He kidnapped me and kept me locked in his house for two months," she said. "He raped me repeatedly."

The girl was eventually rescued by a cybercrime police unit.

"Information and communication technologies are intensifying traditional childhood risks, such as bullying, and fuelling new forms of child abuse and exploitation, such as 'made-to-order' child sexual abuse material and live streaming of child sexual abuse," says the report, The State of the World's Children 2017 - Children in a Digital World.

"Predators can more easily make contact with unsuspecting children through anonymous and unprotected social media profiles and game forums.

"New technologies - like cryptocurrencies and the Dark Web - are fuelling live streaming of child sexual abuse and other harmful content, and challenging the ability of law enforcement to keep up."

Ninety-two per cent of child sex abuse web addresses identified by the Internet Watch Foundation are hosted in just five countries: the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, France and the Russian Federation.

Ron Chapple Stock

But Lucy Thomas, from Melbourne-based organisation Project Rockit, told news.com.au you can't protect young people by shielding them from technology, or they face missing vital opportunities.

She said issues facing young people online range include "social exclusion, cyber-bullying, racism and sexism", but you also find "rallying" as teenagers take a stand to create the world they want.

"We've heard of girls at school hassled repeatedly to send nudes," said Lucy. "They've said a firm 'I don't want to' and it's still happening. So they send bizarre photos, extreme close-ups, a stream of photos of nude Barbie dolls or nude make-up. It still has humour, you don't have to say, 'That's illegal, you could go to jail.' It's clever, creative and fun."

A 14-year-old boy from Ballarat, Victoria, left his phone in a classroom at his school and it wasn't locked with a passcode. Some students from the next class decided to destroy his reputation for fun. "They sent vile, obscene photos to his parents, left derogatory comments on his peers' social media profiles and did awful things on his Facebook account and deleted the history," said Lucy.

More than 64,000 teens across the world answered questions on their attitude to the internet.
More than 64,000 teens across the world answered questions on their attitude to the internet.

The student posted a handwritten note online, explaining what had happened and asking everyone to share it to beat the bullies at their own game. Soon, everyone in town knew the story.

"He used the technology that was used against him to reclaim his identity," said Lucy. "Had he been further protected, he wouldn't have had the ability to save himself."

The youth advocate says that while adults' online concerns involve online security and predators, young people's digital fears cover relationships, identity, bullying and how they compare to their peers.

In the best cases, teenagers are using online spaces to forge connections, find a sense of belonging, create their own careers and push for change.

"No longer can we work with a rigid approach of risks versus opportunities, harm versus benefits," said Lucy. "The reality is the risks, opportunities, harms and benefits are linked in complex ways.

"Technology has changed the issue of bullying: you're able to be harmful and destructive while protected behind a screen. It creates a safe Petri dish to launch hatred on to someone else.

"The solution is developing an empathetic and compassionate connection that cuts across the clicks."

As part of the UNICEF research, social messaging tool U-Report collected 63,000 responses to several questions from 13-24-year-olds in 24 countries.

Asked what they disliked about the internet, 23 per cent of young people said violence, and 33 per cent said unwanted sexual content.

Young people from low-income nations were 2.5 times more likely to ask for greater access to digital devices, with 13 per cent saying there was nothing they disliked about the internet, compared to three per cent in high income countries.

The report concluded that technology tended to reflect existing problems. A digital tool cannot fix dysfunctional bureaucracies or reduce inequality unless it is part of wider social movement.

"The internet was designed for adults, but it is increasingly used by children and young people - and digital technology increasingly affects their lives and futures," said UNICEF Australia Director, Tony Stuart.

"So digital policies, practices and products should better reflect the needs, perspectives and voices of children.

"Digital access can be a game-changer for children or yet another dividing line."



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