COVID-19 May update:

The safeguarding risks trending in the lockdown.

7th June 2020

Last month, four weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, the team at eSafe revealed how the digital behaviour of young people had changed, and what this meant in terms of the trending safeguarding risks.  There's no doubt that spending more time alone, on their devices and online, is increasing the exposure of young people to an array of safeguarding risks.

April saw a huge surge in young people consuming pornographic content, a significant increase in young people talking to strangers and an uplift in sexting and grooming incidents.  You can read the more detailed April update here

From our further analysis of the safeguarding risks we detected in May, it is very clear that these trends have not only continued, but have become more pronounced.

Key findings

This line graph shows how the pattern of safeguarding incidents has changed:

  • The blue line shows the pattern pre-lockdown (monthly average September 2019 - March 2020 ).
  • The orange line shows the pattern in the first month of lockdown - April 2020.
  • The grey line shows the pattern in the second month of lockdown - May 2020.

 

  • Mental health is usually by far our largest category of reported incidents.  While this remains large, and has increased during the lockdown, the graph shows three other significant categories:  'pornography', 'sexting & grooming' and 'stranger danger'.
  • In our April report we  talked about a significant surge in children and young people talking to strangers online, especially on chat applications like 'Omegle' and 'Discord', and this upward trend has continued sharply through May. 
  • This rising trend of young people talking to people they don't know links directly with the steep upward (and exponential) rise that we've seen in sexting & grooming incidents.  Indeed, we detected 12x more incidents in this category in May than in April - corroborating warnings of increased sexual predatory behaviour in the lockdown from the National Crime Agency based on their latest assessment, showing there are at least 300,000 people in the UK posing a sexual threat to children. 
  • One of the other lockdown effects we talked about in our April update was the increase in the number of young people exploring pornography on the internet.   The huge surge that we detected in April has continued through May, with a further 170% uplift in the volume of reported incidents.  The team here is questioning whether the lack of face to face contact with friends is leading to heightened risk-taking, such as sending and sharing sexual images online.  There is also the possibility of accidental exposure, of course, given the amount of inappropriate content that exists online, but this doesn't explain the scale of what we are seeing.
  • Since the lockdown began, we have also seen a marked increase in online bullying incidents, including “gaslighting” (a type of gradual emotional abuse that can leave victims distraught). We can potentially explain this as follows:

    • Young people are more inclined to channel their thoughts and feelings in the digital space, sometimes “sadfishing” (fishing for sympathy online, with attention seeking posts that fabricate or exaggerate their emotional struggles), during the lockdown. 
    • Those who would normally remain silent/passive are more inclined to contribute and comment - to get involved in bullying behaviour without fear of retribution or retaliation due to lockdown conditions.

We will be keeping a close eye on how these trends evolve - as the lockdown measures are eased and society starts to get back to some sense of normality - and sharing regular updates in our social media channels.

 

Useful resources 

The NSPCC provides a useful hub of information and practical advice about the range of safeguarding risks, including what to do if you’re concerned for a young person.

  • Click here to read more about the risks associated with online porn.
  • Click here to read more about online grooming, including the signs and effects.

 

Thinkuknow is the education programme from NCA-CEOP, a UK organisation focused on protecting young people.  Here you’ll find a range of their resources promoting safe and positive behaviour online.

The UK Safer Internet Centre, a partnership of three organisations: Childnet International, Internet Watch Foundation and SWGfL, provides online safety tips, advice and resources to help young people stay safe.  Take a look here.

Parent Info provides support and guidance for parents, from leading experts and organisations.  Click here to see the available resources.

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