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Violence on the Internet

How can we protect children from sexual violence online?

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04. February 2021

The digital age has opened up new, previously unimagined possibilities for all of us – and the same unfortunately also applies to abusers. Psychologist Julia von Weiler, managing director of the “Innocence in Danger” association, explains how parents and teachers can support children and young people in their exploration of digital worlds and how policymakers can offer them better protection.

#explore: What are the aims of “Innocence in Danger”?

Julia von Weiler: “Innocence in Danger” aims to combat sexual violence against girls and boys, with a particular focus on sexual violence through the digital media. Although it has to be said that we can now no longer draw a dividing line between analogue and digital sexual abuse. The perpetrators simply use all the means at their disposal. Digital communication channels are a particular gold mine for them because they can make contact with children without being observed or interrupted.

 

In which digital spaces are children and young people particularly at risk?

In all digital spaces where interaction is possible – in most online games and, of course, on social media. The problem is that we often presume that children and young people have a capacity for awareness in dealing with digital media that they’re simply too young to have. We confuse their skills in using apps with life skills. Just because children quickly find out where to press which button and how to create good lighting effects for a TikTok video, this doesn’t mean that they will understand what the consequences of such a video might be.

How can we raise awareness among young people?

First of all, of course, it’s a question of teaching them the media skills that everyone talks about. We actually prefer to talk about digital relationship skills: after all, the digital world is changing our relationships, and communication is already proving a challenge in its own right. And when you combine digital communication with relationships and how to do them, it all gets a whole lot more complex. The crucial question is how and from what age we introduce children to digital media. Just giving kids a smartphone and booking them onto a couple of media skills workshops is definitely not enough. And it’s also nonsense to maintain that we’re denying children access to digital education if they don’t have their own smartphone with internet access as early as possible. We should instead be guided by how we prepare them for everyday life situations: step by step and keeping a very close eye on them. It’s just like when they’re learning to ride a bike. They might start on a scooter, and when they move onto a bike, we’ll have them riding next to or behind us - and we won’t let them ride around the block on their own until we’re confident they can handle the bike and know the rules of the road. This is the kind of approach we should also take to things digital.

And what might this look like in specific terms?

Parents should think carefully about when they think their child is mature enough to use a smartphone. And they also need to understand the effort involved in supervising their children and exercising responsible parental control. If we want to introduce children and young people to the digital age, we also really need to make sure that their parents and the other adults in their life are competent too. And if we want to strengthen children's digital relationship skills, it’s also a matter of working with them to get them to understand why it’s so difficult to see in a digital space when someone might be approaching them with sinister intentions. Or why all young people think that they’ve simply got to be on TikTok. Do we have to go along with all the digital trends, or can we choose not to?

How can parents manage this without giving their children the feeling of being controlled and monitored the whole time?

Parents shouldn’t hover over their children all the time, of course; but they should feel free to make decisions with them – and, if need be, for them - that are appropriate to their age and state of development, just as they do in other areas. At “Innocence in Danger”, for example, we’re convinced that primary school children don’t need their own smartphone. And if they’re then allowed to watch certain games or videos on their parents’ devices from time to time, it goes without saying that it should be the parents who download these games or videos and are in the room with them and take an occasional look at what they’re doing, if for no other reason than interest in what their kids are up to. Of course, the older the children get, the more independent they will want to be. Just like when they’re out riding their bikes. This just needs to be negotiated accordingly.

How can parents prepare their children for the worst-case scenario?

We have to keep coming back to the same difficult question: who will you turn to if you get into trouble, if something scares you? If you're uncomfortable talking to me as a parent first, could you talk to a godparent, your grandmother, an uncle or a teacher? Online offenders are crafty, think strategically and are always one step ahead of the children. The same applies to non-virtual contact. But here you at least have a lot of physical signals – such as changes in the adult’s tone, breathing or facial expression that make children feel that it’s all getting kind of uncomfortable. When you’re online, these signals are more or less absent. But if the chat messages become explicitly sexual, and the children's curiosity gives way to horror, they will often feel guilty for getting involved in the conversation in the first place. This is what makes it so difficult for them to share their experience. And this is another good reason for us to keep telling them that, no matter what happens, we love them and will always support them, even if they think they’ve done something really bad.

What role can and should schools play here?

Schools have an incredibly important role. But it’s just as important to deal with the issue without alarmism and getting on a moral high horse. For this will usually lead to kids being bombarded with way too much information, in projects at school for instance, which they can’t begin to process. I was invited to a year six class once when one of the boys, clearly exasperated, said to me: “Yes, yes, I know, you’re going to tell us now that Facebook is totally dangerous and that everyone who uses it is a murderer or a rapist.” But when they realised that we weren’t saying that at all, we went on to have loads of fun and a terrific workshop. It’s all about meeting children and young people on an equal footing. This means that we must always take them seriously and be honestly interested in what they experience online and what kinds of responses get triggered. In my experience, the best conversations always happen when the children can see we’re doing just that. And this is precisely why we should invite them to talk to us much more often.

And how can policymakers better protect children and young people?

An amendment to the German law on the protection of minors is currently being negotiated with the aim of finally bringing the protection of underaged children into the digital age. One of the key points is to ensure that so-called interaction risks are also taken into account when it comes to giving games an age rating. This would mean that popular games like “Clash of Clans” would no longer be approved for children of six because they have chat functions which allow sex offenders and people with a radicalisation agenda from the far-left, far-right or Islamist extremes to contact them. We’ve been calling for a long time now for legally binding child protection standards - and this change to the laws protecting minors is just the first step. From our point of view, the providers should also have trained facilitators who kids can turn to if they get into trouble. After all, children need actual people to talk to rather than cumbersome reporting functions.

What other important factors are involved in bringing about effective child protection online?

The providers are located in different countries, which is why we really need globally effective child protection. This must also permit the use of filters to combat cyber-grooming, like those developed by Microsoft or the non-profit organisation Thorn. These are analytical tools that identify specific words and expressions in a chat thread and report suspect messages to human moderators. It’s in this connection that the privacy and data protection debate often starts up. I find this odd because spam and phishing filters for e-mails have a similar technical basis, and we don’t have an issue with them. We need to impose obligations much more rigorously on the providers, because the current system of self-regulation in age recognition does of course have its limits.

Do the law enforcement agencies have enough people and resources to do this?

The law enforcement agencies aren’t well equipped to evaluate the vast amounts of data that are secured in major abuse cases. The so-called Bergisch Gladbach crime complex alone takes up 85 terabytes, and legal proceedings are still pending, and new suspects still being arrested. The judiciary must also be reinforced, because proceedings all too often have to be terminated simply because the data can’t be analysed within the statutory deadlines. We also need official online patrols, by which I mean law enforcement agents who are visible and approachable in the digital media for people in need.

How can parents recognise when their children are being sexually assaulted online?

If you see your child changing and becoming withdrawn, and if you start to worry that sexual violence might have something to do with it, it’s important not to overreact, but equally not to downplay your concern. Take the first step, and don’t feel you need to do it alone! Talk to your partner or your friends or contact your local sexual abuse helpline  (0800 22 55 530 in Germany) or a counselling centre near where you live. It’s very difficult for children who are being abused to share what’s happening to them. They may feel ashamed or not want to worry their parents; nor do they want their parents to be ashamed of them. They may be trying to protect their parents. Unfortunately, parents all too often try to protect themselves by saying that something like this can’t be happening to their child. But that just isn’t so! So my advice would be that it’s better to call the helpline once too often than not to call until it’s too late.

 

 

The German section of “Innocence in Danger” was founded in 2003. How has the political and social awareness of sexual abuse changed since then?

 

Due to some prominent abuse cases at German schools back in 2010, the problem of sexual abuse has once again become a matter of great public relevance which no one questions any longer. This is both a major achievement and an unbelievably important one. Unfortunately, however, changes to the law still usually get discussed only in response to large cases of abuse and are often then hastily patched together and rushed into law. We could do this more thoroughly and effectively if we started earlier. According to the MiKADO study  commissioned by the German Ministry for Family Affairs, only one third of the people affected by sexual violence ever tell anyone about it. That’s way too few. The positive finding of the study, however, is that 80 percent of the people who do talk to others go on to have a positive experience as a result of doing so. Something has improved, and this has to do with the fact that we’re now actually dealing with this issue. We’re slowly grasping the reality that sexual abuse is a long-term issue that sadly isn’t just going to go away, no matter how good the preventive measures are. And that means we have to intervene sooner. We need to identify perpetrators more quickly to protect our children better.

ABOUT

 Psychologist Julia von Weiler has been working in the field of sexual violence against children and young people in various child and youth welfare institutions for the last 30 years. Since 2003, she has been the director of the “Innocence in Danger” association, the German section of the international network against sexual abuse. She is the author of the Parents' guide entitled “Im Netz: Kinder vor sexueller Gewalt schützen” ("On the Internet: Protecting Children from Sexual Violence”).