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When it comes to children, the issue of online safety raises many responses from parents, but the most frequent is “not my kid”.

The sad reality is that no child is immune to the ways that the online world exposes them to dangers. It would be wonderful to think otherwise, but it is simply not the case. Regardless of how we go about protecting children, they all remain vulnerable to some degree given their age and capacity to self-regulate. Some are significantly more at risk than others.

There is broad consensus that digital literacy is essential for children growing up in this technological world. The question is, how are we teaching them? With the school curriculum carefully scrutinised and implemented to avoid offending parents, children are receiving minimal and very basic information on body safety and sex education at school. So it’s essential that parents do all they can to minimise children’s risk of harm online.  

Young boy on mobile phone

We must start with the acute awareness that the internet is not an age-segregated space. As parents, how are we preparing them for the deluge of material available to them online? 

When parents express their primary concerns about online safety for children, the majority indicate:
exposure to inappropriate content 

Using the term ‘inappropriate’ is common. It includes profanity, nudity, drug use, alcohol abuse, pornography, self-harm, talk of suicide, real-life violence and radical beliefs. This term is so broad that it allows a person to focus on the area they deem as ‘inappropriate’—and to disconnect from an area that they find too confronting.

Two areas that fall under the category of ‘too confronting’ are pornography and child exploitation material. This blog focuses on the latter.

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner together with the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation has issued multiple warnings on the steady increase in the supply and demand for child exploitation material—more and more of which is self-generated.

The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation reports that “every 5 minutes a webpage shows an image of a child being sexually abused“. ACCCE indicates that during the COVID-19 epidemic, supply and demand for child exploitation material has spiked considerably. They report a 122% increase in child exploitation material from April to June compared to the same time last year. Cybertip in Canada and the United States National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children have both reported a similar global spike.

Bearing this in mind, and the fact that during this period there have been enforced ‘lockdowns’— meaning children were in the ‘safety’ of their own homes—one could question how this spike was remotely possible? 

Some light can be shed on the reason for this when reviewing a recent research report published by the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation in February this year.

The findings indicated that:

  • 87% of children between the ages of 4 and 7 years use the internet, 40% have their own device, and 16% are left online unsupervised.
  • The number of children unsupervised increases significantly in the 8 – 11 year age bracket. 40% of the 98% of children using the internet, do so without supervision.
  • Some “children were reported to be using the internet from as young as 1 or 2 years of age. For some parents/carers, the technological abilities of their child(ren) at such a young age was something they were proud of/would “brag about” to other parents/carers.”
  • Additionally, ACCCE reports that 70% of parents “allowed their child(ren) to use the internet ‘anywhere’ in the house, albeit with varying levels of supervision, with 22% allowing their child(ren) to use the internet anywhere in the house with no oversight whatsoever.”
Kids playing unsupervised on mobile phones

Despite these alarming statistics, the prevalence of “not my kid” is typical —65% of parents “perceived their children to be safe when using the internet.”

One could not peruse this report without taking note of the fact that 80% of parents/carers admitted they would negatively respond if they found out a child had shared images online, i.e. with anger. And 73% would similarly react if they found out their child had talked to a stranger online. 

Despite this, 89% of parents felt that their child would tell them if something negative happened to them online. However, with so many parents indicating that they would respond negatively, it’s no wonder that younger participants in the survey reported that they would rather confide in a peer or sibling than their parent/carer. (Kids tend to have an inbuilt radar that detects when parents are likely to flip their lid over something).

Some misconceptions when it comes to child exploitation material that supports the “not my kid” mantra include:
it only happens to disadvantaged or neglected children  (it can happen to ANY kid)
high school children are more at risk (the reality is that 60% of cases involved prepubescent children)
parental controls and other filters are sufficient in keeping children safe (not by a long-shot – they need to be educated about the risks, taught how to respond, and regularly monitored)
children are safer on games than social media or messaging apps (predators make it their business to frequent anywhere that children congregate online)
grooming is a slow process and parents would have time to pick up the signs (grooming can happen in a matter of minutes)
child exploitation is not a common problem in Australia (anywhere there’s a child and the internet, child exploitation is on the rise)

The literature states that perpetrators are typically, but not invariably, white males, aged between 35-45 years, single, well educated and in a professional occupation. With the average gamer being 34 years, one can see how the perception that a young child is ‘safe’ playing a game online is mistaken.  

Barriers to implementing preventative measures included:

  • not feeling comfortable about discussing the topic
  • having limited knowledge on the topic
  • feeling overwhelmed by the challenge
  • not perceiving that it was their responsibility with some reporting that “children over the age of 12 were ‘old enough’ to know.”

Also, social norms tend to:

  • “prioritise the privacy of the child.”
  • affirm the blaming of victims,” i.e. they should know better.
  • endorse limited online parental vigilance.” Some parents who have firm boundaries in place report being “scorned” by either their children or the parents of children who chose not to enforce limits. 

At Porn Resilient Kids, we firmly believe that the ease of access and in turn, exposure to online pornography, is a driving contributing factor to the risks children are facing.

Finding or stumbling upon pornography inevitably desensitises the child. Initial shock or confusion can lead to further curiosity, exposing them to a world of violent, degrading material and normalising the concept of ‘demand and submit’. This content plays a role in assisting predators when it comes to grooming a child – a child desensitised to pornography is far easier to coerce.

As stated by Kristen Jensen of Protect Young Minds in the documentary, Our Kids Online;

Some parents believe the myth that because their kids are good and they’re good parents, and they’ve raised their children in a good family, a strong family—that their children will be just naturally immune to pornography and that is not true. Pornography is an equal opportunity offender … It can affect and pull children in from the best family situations to the worst family situations. Children are biologically wired to be interested in nudity.”

The ACCCE offers clear messaging and guidance:

  • Children and young people of all ages need the support, guidance and education of adults to stay safe online.
  • Those of primary school age should ALWAYS be overseen by an adult when online.
  •  Those in early teenage years should have their online activity monitored and supervised CLOSELY by an adult.
  •  Those in older teenage years should be educated about what to do to stay safe when they are online.
  •  Those with learning or other disabilities may require different levels of supervision and support based on their needs.

Online risks have drastically increased, and it is the first time in history that parents have ever had to navigate this issue with young children. At the same time, there appears to be a significant denial of the imminent risks children face online. Additionally, children have access to devices at an increasingly young age. Coupled with the immaturity of the child’s developing brain, and it’s entirely possible that a tsunami of trauma may be occurring that we are unlikely to know the full extent of for years to come.

The repeated warnings of “one cannot unsee what has been seen,” and “an image can never come down once uploaded”—do not seem enough to prompt action.

With less than one in ten parents/carers responding accurately to a series of critical safety statements presented in the ACCCE report relating to online child exploitation material, we should not be surprised by the repeated warnings about the steady increase of this material appearing online.

Perhaps it’s time to take off the blindfold and reconsider … “why not my kid?

Porn Resilient Kids gives voice to courageous stories. If you have a story that you want to share (you can do so anonymously), so that others can learn from everyday challenges and parenting experiences send us an email. Your courage will help others.

If you are in Australia and need help with a cybersafety issue, the eSafety Commissioner deals with 3 kinds of abuse. Cyberbullying, image-based abuse and illegal content. Report abuse here.

Report concerns to the Australian Federal Police about inappropriate behaviour towards children that you find online. This service can be used to report:

  • adults making online contact with a child under 18 with the intention of facilitating a sexual relationship; or
  • an adult accessing, sending or uploading sexualised material depicting a child under 18.
Jenny Hoey

Author Jenny Hoey

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