The Jakarta Post

Why online spaces remain unsafe for children, youth

By Amanda Manyame Inter Press Service/Johannesburg Digital law and rights adviser at Equality Now

The internet and digital technology have allowed children and young people to connect, exchange knowledge and information, and truly turn the world into a global village.

Although a lot of good has come from this level of connectivity, the ability to reach millions of people at the click of a button has also allowed bad actors access to a wider potential victim pool. Most critically, increased accessibility to the internet has exacerbated the sexual exploitation and abuse of children and young people.

What happens offline has found its way online. Children and young people are repeatedly victimized as these crimes are usually captured in permanent digital images that are perpetually reshared online resulting in long-term impact that often lasts into adulthood.

There is an urgent need to develop adequate and future-proof laws that ensure safe, responsible, and positive use of the internet and digital technology to guarantee children and young people are able to safely enjoy online spaces.

While online sexual exploitation and abuse (OSEA) occurs in digital spaces, the roots of this form of violence are fundamentally the same as those that occur in the physical world. Sexism, gender-based discrimination, intersecting inequalities, cultural beliefs, and social norms underpin sexual abuse and exploitation that occurs “in the real world” as well as online.

The factors that make children and young people vulnerable to OSEA were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic prompted the closure of schools, recreational centers, after school activities and other places where children and young people tend to spend a majority of their time.

These necessary public health measures led to an unprecedented number of children and young people going online and using digital technologies, some for the first time and many with little or no supervision.

One of the ways to end OSEA and create secure and respectful online spaces is to have laws, policies, and measures that adopt a human rights-based approach and are informed by the needs and experiences of OSEA survivors.

OSEA is global and multijurisdictional because offenders, victims, and digital platforms are often located in different countries which presents legal challenges when prosecuting offenders. As such, legal remedies for survivors need to be multijurisdictional and enforceable internationally.

OSEA is not only found on the dark web but on the surface web where children and young people frequently socialize and create and share content. In Equality Now’s latest report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards, we examined legal responses to this global problem.

Adolescent girls and legal experts in India, Kenya, Nigeria, the

United Kingdom and the United States informed us of their experiences of OSEA on social media apps, which are easily accessible to children and young people and require very little data to access.

In some instances, girls simply blocked the offenders and did not report the abuse to the police or the social media platform. The stigma associated with experiencing OSEA prevents victims from reporting, which only contributes to the vicious cycle of abuse.

Children and young people are going online without information on how to protect themselves or identify and report offenders. Their caregivers are also not always well equipped to manage these challenges.

Digital platforms need to improve their systems for reporting OSEA by making it easier for children, young people, and their caregivers to report abuse and exploitation and track the progress of their reports.

They must also ensure that they have systems in place to respond in a timely manner to complaints and inform users of the decisions and actions they have taken.

It has become clear that relying on digital platforms to self-regulate has not been sufficient in preventing OSEA, thus governments and international bodies must take a more proactive approach and develop and implement laws that regulate the policies and practices adopted and applied by digital platforms.





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