Today marks Internet Watch Foundation Awareness Day in the 15th year of the organisation’s tenure as an independent, self-regulatory body funded by the EU and the online industry. Tempero have been a proud member for 9 years because we believe that it’s essential that the online industry at large take a role in dealing with images of child sexual abuse.
On Monday the IWF issued a press release detailing the scale of the appropriation of self-generated, sexually explicit online images and videos of young people by sites dedicated to displaying sexual content. It is a timely but concerning reminder of the importance of more education in this area for young people and the public at large.
IWF analysts found over 12,000 self-generated, sexually explicit images and videos over the course of little more than a working week and 88% of the images appeared on what the IWF are terming ‘parasite websites’, that is, they were copied from their original location and uploaded to a website dedicated to featuring sexual content.
I think that anyone involved with children’s communities over the past few years would tell you that the pressure to share images of themselves online, or with each other, is increasing amongst young people and, if you work with organisations like ChildLine and CEOP as I do, it’s clear that sometimes the fallout from this activity can be devastating. The world at large is still coming to terms with the suicide of Amanda Todd. Amanda’s depression began after she was persuaded to pose topless on webcam and serves as a stark warning of the damage this kind of exposure, and the subsequent bullying she was subjected to, can do. There are many other young people who suffer anxiety, depression and reputational damage at a time that will shape much of their early adult life as a result of a mistake or misjudgement of this kind.
It can be too easy to assume that this can be easily fixed. The comments below and others from the ‘comment is free’ section of a Guardian article based on the IWF’s work gave me pause for thought. If they are common in society at large then there is still much work to do.
“Don’t put pictures of yourself on the internet. It’s not rocket science, surely?”
“I’m often surprised at how ignorant the younger generation are. I had assumed that being brought up in the internet age, they would be a bit more savvy.”
The real situation for young people, as with most things in life, is a lot more complicated.
In May of this year the NSPCC published a small scale, qualitative pilot study into sexting which found that many of the young people they spoke to experienced pressure to take and distribute pictures and videos like that examined in the IWF study on a daily basis. They concluded that the greater threat to young people was from their peer group rather than strangers, that sexting was often ‘coercive’, that it is difficult to draw a line between sexting and bullying, that girls were overwhelmingly the victims and that technology greatly amplifies the problem. They called for technology suppliers to provide better reporting functionality and to back it up with swift action when a report is made; in effect to take responsibility for the situation their platforms have helped to amplify.
This link between bullying and sexting and the coercive nature of many cases means that the ‘common sense’ answers of those who think that young people should simply be ‘more savvy’ are unrealistic at best. Much of this material is shared with someone else either in trust or in fear and the victim does not often expect that it will end up online for all to view. To ignore this is to bury our heads in the sand and hope that the issue will go away.
What the IWF research shows is that without effective reporting and swift action by internet platforms, young people can lose control of the images altogether and the consequences are severe. The IWF shared several quotations from young people in their press release that echo the distress I have seen in many messages submitted to ChildLine or CEOP.
“Please remove this from the internet as soon as possible as one family member has already come across it… I feel like ending my life as I am so ashamed and embaressed [sic] and this has been put up without my concent.” [sic]
Today is IWF awareness day, and I will be talking to friends, family and clients about it, because until we’re smart enough to design better technological solutions to enable people to manage images they may regret taking, the IWF can help to ensure that cases like that of Amanda Todd are mitigated and that victims can deal with the social trauma in their family and school life without worrying about the images being appropriated, passed on and following them through the rest of their life. I’d invite you all to do the same and support the IWF today and for the rest of the year.