When my nephew was first born, our entire family was over the moon. My sister and her husband waited quite a while before deciding to bring a new life into the world, and I had already made the decision not to. With only two children in our family, this was our parent’s first grandchild, and I was excited beyond words to become an aunt!
Of course everyone wanted to immediately view photos of my nephew, particularly my mother’s friends (most of whom already had several grandchildren of their own!) and our relatives overseas. My sister’s friends were also keen to get their first peak at the beautiful baby boy that they had helped welcome into the world with a wonderful baby shower a few months before.
Being a child protection specialist, I have become accustomed to being called paranoid, ‘nervous Nellie’, and sometimes even perverse. This is because in this field, we see, hear, read and learn about all sorts of ways in which children can be abused. One of the most insidious, but least-talked about and sickening forms of child abuse is online child sexual abuse and child pornography. I’m not even going to go into some of the ways in which children are abused online, because it might literally make you want to vomit. But suffice to say that with the explosion of social media, children are more at risk than ever from child sexual abuse. What is concerning and what many people never even consider, however, is that parents can unwittingly be making their own children vulnerable to such abuse.
I thought I was the “expert” in the family on child safeguarding. So imagine my surprise and amazement when my sister and her husband created a “secret group” on Facebook, in order to share photos of my nephew only with people who were personally invited – close friends and family. My amazement was mainly due to my lack of knowledge around technology, and I’m actually a relatively tech-savvy individual. So that got me thinking: How many of my friends and relatives, who innocently post photos of their children on Facebook, Instagram, Viber, etc. realize that those photos can be viewed – and taken by – paedophiles. In the most extreme cases, children could be identified through those photos, their location found, and a paedophile could begin the process of ‘grooming’ the child and their family….getting close to them, becoming their friend, gaining their trust, and then taking an opportunity alone with the child to abuse them. But most forms of social media-related child abuse are not carried out in this manner.
According to a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald , “Innocent photos of children originally posted on social media and family blogs account for up to half the material found on some paedophile image-sharing sites, according to Australia's new Children's eSafety Commissioner.” Senior investigator at the eSafety Commissioner, Toby Dagg, said that on one site with at least 45 million images "about half the material appeared to be sourced directly from social media" and clearly labelled in folders as images from Facebook, or other social sites like Kik, with one folder called "Kik girls". Another was labelled "My daughter's Instagram friends".
While photos copied from social media would not be considered exploitation material on their own, they were often accompanied by comments that explicitly sexualise the children. However, this was just a fraction of all the material investigated every year, Mr Dagg added.
For parents, the key is to firstly learn more about how to use social media. Most parents understand social media much less than their children. If you don’t fully understand the media, have someone teach you how to use it before you start posting anything. Secondly, think about why you want to post that photo or video of your child, and who will be able to view it. Facebook has some of the strongest security settings, but you must set these manually. Many people do not realize that their content is viewable by anyone, or by “friends of friends”, unless they check their security settings. Thirdly, if you are a voracious poster of photos or videos of your children, try not to put their name to the photo, and if possible don’t identify the location. This applies more to social media sites with weaker security settings than Facebook, or if you have not changed your Facebook settings. Finally, parents must realize that once they put an image or video out on the internet, it is out there for perpetuity. While it is possible to withdraw an image from certain sites, if someone has already “grabbed” that photo, it is too late to get it back from them.
While it is still taking our family some time to come to terms with the fact that we need to be careful with posting photos of my nephew online, I’m extremely pleased that his parents began thinking of his online safety from the day he was born. I see many photos of my friend’s children, and I have the urge to send them a message: “Please be careful – that post could be seen as sexualized, you’re putting his/her name out there, and maybe that’s not such a good idea”. Child protection is about preventing children from becoming victims of any form of abuse – call me paranoid or twisted, but this stuff is real. It is happening every day, all over the world, to millions of children. Please don’t let yours become one of them.
For more information and support, visit:
Canadian Centre for Child Protection: https://needhelpnow.ca/app/en/removing_pictures-facebook
UK: CEOP (formerly the Child Exploitation and Online Centre): https://www.ceop.police.uk/
International : http://www.itu.int/en/cop/Pages/default.aspx
Other resources : http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/child/organizations/en/