Vienna, 27 September 2013. This week a group of experts met at the United Nations in Vienna to review the effects of new information technology on the abuse and exploitation of children, along with measures that have proven effective in combating it. The meeting brought together experts from the fields of law enforcement, research, industry and academia.
The online exploitation of children is a growing international concern, with advances in technology facilitating their abuse. Cheap prices for information and communication technology (ICT) devices and easy internet access means that sex offenders have unprecedented access to materials and an online community to affirm their abusive and exploitative behaviour.
In addition, children and young people are adopting new technology earlier and more often, and unwittingly exposing themselves to online child predators at an unprecedented rate. Sexual abuse for private and commercial purposes, child trafficking, cyber grooming and cyber bullying are just some of the risks the digital age has brought to children across the world.
"The exploitation of children is not a new phenomenon, but the digital age has exacerbated the problem and created more vulnerability to children," said Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). While information and communications technology advances have not necessarily given rise to entirely new forms of child abuse, they have in some cases changed the nature and dimension of the exploitation.
Through the internet, online predators can gain access to children faster and in higher volumes, using chat rooms, emails, online games and social networking sites to find and groom victims. Cyberspace has also significantly reduced the risk and increased the ability for offenders to access child sex abuse material. "Prior to the internet, an offender was thought to have a huge collection with 150 images of children; today a 150,000 image collection is quite standard, and a 1.5 million image collection not unheard of," said Dr. Joe Sullivan, a forensic psychologist who works with child sex offenders.
New forms of exploitation are also developing with easy accessibility: 'made-to-order' child sexual abuse material is an example, where offenders order materials to their specifications, such as age and race of victims, the nature of the sexual conduct, the setting and fantasy story lines.
A number of factors make children more vulnerable to online child abuse: gender plays a big role with the majority of victims being girls, but race and ethnicity, social-economic background, young age and risky behaviour typical of adolescence make some children more vulnerable than others.
But modernity is a main culprit. "Before, non-vulnerable children had parents to act as a barrier as to whom they were in touch with - now this is gone," said Michael Moran, Assistant Director for Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation at INTERPOL.
The globalized and anonymous cyberspace environment also helps predators escape detection in new ways, and a multitude of technical challenges hinder governments' abilities to identify and address child exploitation offences. Organized criminal networks also exploit the void, profiting from the commercial child pornography and child sex trafficking markets.
Globally, a lack of consistent and appropriate legislation across countries is a major impediment to successful investigations and prosecutions. Individual states vary considerably in their definitions of various forms of child abuse and exploitation, and often cannot move fast enough to enact laws that keep pace with technology.
But technology also presents opportunities and may offer remedies for law enforcement and Governments to combat the problem. "The internet has been a good thing for police officers - it has brought all these worms to the surface. We can now identify them and track them down," said Jonathan Rouse, Detective-Inspector with the Queensland Police in Australia in charge of a taskforce on computer-facilitated crimes against children. Innovations in methods and techniques, such as victim-identification databases, data mining and analytics, also improve forensic processes to advance investigations.
Experts agreed that better education and awareness are essential to protecting children. "We are not going to simply prosecute our way out of this problem" said Mr. Rouse. Parents must work to overcome the 'generational digital divide' and take a vested interest in the technology they give their children, educating them on their safe use and on the potential ramifications of careless online behaviour. "Parents and educators need a good understanding of how sex offenders work," added Dr. Sullivan, "They are often surprised at how sophisticated offenders are, and at the levels of manipulation they go through to gain access to children."
"UNODC is in a unique position to help countries deal with this issue at the global level," said Mr. Fedotov, "We can encourage effective cooperation between countries in investigations, and support global awareness efforts to educate parents and children on the safe use of ICTs. But everyone must play their part - including the private sector, which is ultimately the major driving force behind technological developments."
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