It is hardly an insight to observe that the internet can be a dark and unruly place. But if we think we had a measure of its dangers – the extremist propaganda, the violent pornography and the vicious cyberbullying – it appears that we were wrong. The latest findings from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre reveal a whole new trend that is as grim as anything yet: sexual blackmail.
According to Ceop, there are perhaps thousands of British children being targeted by abusers – sometimes in groups, sometimes elsewhere in the world – who use social media sites to systematically select, groom and exploit their victims.
Posing as other youngsters, abusers persuade their targets to strip or perform sexual acts on a webcam, and then blackmail them with the threat that the images will be sent to family and friends. Occasionally the demands are financial – as was the case with Daniel Perry, the Scottish 17-year-old who killed himself last month. More often, though, victims are forced into ever more disturbing sexual activity or self-harm.
As regards the perpetrators, the matter is, of course, one for law enforcement. It is some small consolation that a group of men are about to stand trial in an undisclosed, non-European country for inciting children to commit abusive sexual acts. But the numbers involved in that single operation are a horrifying insight into the scale of the problem: of the 490 children targeted worldwide some 322 were blackmailed, 96 of whom were in Britain. And the same vast geographic reach of the exploitation that makes it so peculiarly disturbing also makes it difficult to police.
More must therefore be done to help children both identify the dangers and disentangle themselves if they become embroiled in a situation beyond their control. Nor is criminal exploitation the only online problem in desperate need of a remedy. The more local brand of cyberbullying that sees children abusing and victimising each other can be just as devastating in its effect, as the death of Hannah Smith, who committed suicide in August after months of bullying on the question-and-answer site Ask.fm, made so terribly clear.
Although police can and should do more, the notion of more laws to govern the internet is neither practical nor desirable. Equally, while social media sites such as Twitter et al may justly be criticised for their slow response, and might still do more to ban those who violate basic decency, they alone cannot stamp out online abuse. What is needed is education.
In part, that means better-informed parents paying closer attention to what their children do online. No less importantly, it means schools tackling the subject formally. Youngsters must be encouraged to apply the same, sceptical “don’t talk to strangers approach” online as on the street; and they must be taught that, no matter what, there are adults who can help them. At the same time, though, it must be made clear that online bullying is as unacceptable as its offline counterpart – and as destructive.
The anonymity of the internet unleashes some of the worst aspects of human nature. But there is not nothing we can do.