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Millions of children around the world are at increased risk of online sexual exploitation, violence and cyberbullying as they spend more time on virtual platforms due to the closing of schools amid COVID-19 lockdowns. More than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by the closing of schools worldwide. Spending more time on virtual platforms can leave children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation and grooming, as predators look to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic

Keeping kids safe online amid Lockdown:

  • School closures and strict containment measures mean more and more families are relying on technology and digital solutions to keep children learning, entertained and connected to the outside world, but not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online
  • More than 5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures worldwide. Many are online now taking classes and socializing.
  • Under the shadow of COVID-19, the lives of millions of children have temporarily shrunk to just their homes and their screens.
  • Spending more time on virtual platforms can leave children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation as predators capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The UN agency maintained that a lack of face-to-face contact with friends and partners may lead to heightened risk-taking, such as sending sexualized images. At the same time, increased and unstructured time online may also expose children to potentially harmful content as well as a greater risk of cyberbullying.

Digital dangers:

  • ICTs have amplified traditional dangers (bullying, for example) and created new forms of child abuse and exploitation, such as made-to-order child sexual abuse material, self-generated content and the broadcasting of live sex abuse
  • Children are disproportionately affected by online dangers, including loss of privacy. They are less likely to understand the risks and more likely to suffer the harms. This particular vulnerability sheds light on when risk turns into actual harm for children.
  • Since 2012, an estimated 100 million children, most from Africa and South-East Asia, have connected to the internet for the first time. Without proper safeguards, the world’s most disadvantaged children will face even greater risk when exposed to the online risk of harm.

Effects of exposure:

  • In the absence of other information, pornography can be the main source of a child’s sex education.
  • The use of pornography by adolescents is associated with stronger permissive sexual attitudes (e.g., premarital sex, casual sex). There is some evidence that exposure to pornography can increase the likelihood of earlier first-time sexual experience, particularly for those adolescents who consume pornography more frequently.
  • Pornography can influence a young person’s expectations about sex, for example what young men expect their partners to do and vice versa.
  • Pornography is also associated with unsafe sexual health practices such as not using condoms and unsafe anal and vaginal sex.
  • Gaps between expectations and reality can produce “sexual uncertainty” about sexual beliefs and values and may also be related to sexual dissatisfaction, anxiety and fear. The content of pornography may reinforce double standards of an active male sexuality and passive female receptacle.
  • Both male and female consumers of pornography had increased levels of self-objectification and body surveillance.
  • Adolescent pornography use is associated with stronger beliefs in gender stereotypes, particularly for males. Male adolescents who view pornography frequently are more likely to view women as sex objects and to hold sexist attitudes such as women “leading men on”.
  • Pornography may strengthen attitudes supportive of sexual violence and violence against women. There is evidence of an association between consuming pornography and perpetrating sexual harassment for boys.
  • Sexual preoccupation, compulsive consumption and “addiction” can be associated with the frequency of viewing pornography and also the purposes of using pornography

Way Forward:

  • Governments should keep child protection services open and active during the pandemic and to train health, education and social service workers on the impacts that COVID-19 may have on their well-being, including increased online risks. Moreover, they are requested to step up awareness raising and educational initiatives on cyber safety and to provide local helplines and hotlines.
  • Meanwhile, the information technology industry, including social networking platforms, should enhance online platforms with more safety measures, especially while using virtual learning tools. They should promote and facilitate child safety referral services and helplines as well as help connect disadvantaged children in low-income households.
  • Schools should update current safeguarding policies to reflect the new realities for children learning from home and ensure that they have continued access to school-based counselling services.
  • Parents can help their children develop a critical eye when viewing media.
  • Parents should make sure that their children’s devices have the latest software updates and antivirus programmes. They are also encouraged to speak to their children on how and with whom they are communicating online and to set new internet rules.
  • Multipronged approach to handle cases: Need to handle this cases through multipronged approach such as counselling through Psychiatrist, approaching police, etc.