Technology can help prevent online abuse

Digital technology has transformed our lives, bringing opportunities to connect with people in a completely different way. The down side? It’s helped those looking to exploit children.

A recent NSPCC report showed the number of recorded sexual offences against children in the UK has doubled since 2005. In the US, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 10.2 million Cyber Tipline reports in 2017, up from 1.1 million just three years earlier. And, according to the Internet Watch Foundation, Europe now hosts more abuse material than the rest of the world combined.

So far, tackling this issue has focused on two primary areas – pre-emptive education and post-event response. On the educational side, the drive has been around making parents and schools aware of the dangers of using the internet and what to watch out for. While response to offences has seen an increase in arrests and more support for those who have been abused.

But technology now presents an opportunity to do more. We can prevent abuse by using technology to protect children in real time – the same way we protect ourselves from injury and illness.

Real-time protection is a normal part of our society

As a society, we’ve protected people from tragedies before they happen for decades. Seatbelts, for example, became a legal requirement for new cars in the UK in 1966. And the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says Volvo's three-point belt design from 1959 has saved one million lives worldwide.

Similarly, more than 130 countries around the world vaccinate teenage girls against the cancer-causing HPV virus. This prevents needless deaths and untold misery to the families of those affected.

As well as the moral responsibility to save lives, prevention makes economic sense too. Seatbelts have decreased non-fatal injuries in car accidents, reducing emergency care costs. And the HPV vaccine halved cervical cancer rates in 10 years, cutting the cost of treatment and recovery.

Technology can protect children in real-time

While technology has helped enable offenders, it can also provide part of the answer. It can empower children by giving them the information they need to protect themselves online.

Artificial intelligence (AI), for example, can alert a child if the person they’re chatting to online is unlikely to be who they claim to be. It can analyse the use of language to spot traits that indicate grooming or identify when someone’s using anonymising techniques like IP address masking. Such a system could be a cost-effective, high impact way to help keep kids safe online.

The NSPCC estimates that non-fatal child maltreatment costs on average £89,390 per child (2017) while the annual cost of child sexual abuse investigations is estimated to rise to £3bn by 2020. By using existing technology to prevent abuse before it happens, we can prevent suffering and put a stop to the lifelong effects of child abuse.

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