Increased exploitation and grooming of children online during COVID-19

media release

By Cheryl Vardon, Principal Commissioner, Queensland Family and Child Commission

Earlier this week, Queensland Police asked the public to help with information about a man under investigation for the exploitation of children. He allegedly used social media accounts to send messages to children and share intimate images.

Sadly, online activity of this nature is increasing here in Queensland. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunities for children to explore the internet have grown in line with greater demand for screen time. From this we are seeing an increase in cases of online child exploitation, including grooming, image-based abuse, and the spread of self-produced sexually explicit material.

Research from the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) found most children aged four and older use the internet in some capacity. The same data indicated when it comes to unsupervised internet access, more children than not were using the internet unsupervised by 11 years of age, and more than 80 per cent of children were using the internet independently once over 14 years of age.

ACCCE also reported a significant spike in reports of online child exploitation during COVID-19 lockdowns. In 2020, the Australian Federal Police charged 191 people with child-abuse related offences and rescued 89 children from harm. Australian authorities also reported an increase in social media sexual exploitation by 120 per cent on Google and 87 per cent on Discord.

From my briefings with Queensland Police, I know the risk of online exploitation is no longer limited to older adults preying on young people. We are seeing a significant increase in self-produced, peer-to-peer images being shared. Sadly, teenage girls are at highest risk of exploitation. It may come as a shock that in some cases images continue to circulate 20 years after being shared.

I am concerned for the welfare of children who are at risk of exploitation, grooming and other crimes against them in the digital space. ACCCE’s research indicated 21 per cent of parents think there was little chance that online sexual exploitation could happen to their child and only 23 per cent of parents sit with their children while they use the internet. This suggests we can be doing more to raise awareness about online dangers.

With digital engagement now part of modern life, preventing children from using devices entirely isn’t the practical answer. Instead, parents need to set limits around screen time and teach their children boundaries.

For younger children, it’s important to resist demands for extra screen time, no matter how big the tantrum. Swap screen time for green time and encourage children to engage with the world in a real-life way. For older children, a social media contract can be an effective way to establish rules around using their devices. That can include an agreement about times they can be online, content they post, or a parent’s right to review their online behaviour. With all children, become familiar with the websites, apps and online games they use, not just by name but by content as well, and talk about their online experiences and those of their friend’s. Importantly, look at your own screen time and consider what changes you can make to set a positive example for your children.

If we keep talking about this issue, we can keep all kids safe online.