Children’s charities have expressed concern that the cost of living crisis may increase the risk of online exploitation for young people during the summer holidays. The NSPCC has urged that the crisis should not be allowed to “fuel another surge in abuse” as witnessed during the COVID pandemic. Barnardo’s has also warned that online interactions can escalate to real-life sexual and criminal exploitation.
Barnardo’s conducted a survey of 1,191 parents and carers across Great Britain, which revealed that nearly half (46%) will struggle to afford family holidays and days out. Additionally, 26% said they cannot pay for activities like childcare and holiday clubs, while 21% stated they will not be able to afford time off work to spend with their children. In a separate survey of 729 children aged 11 to 17 years old, 71% said they will spend more time online during the holidays than during term time, and 8% said they will meet up with people they have met online this summer. Approximately 13% said they already communicate with people they have met online but do not know in person.
Lynn Perry, Barnardo’s chief executive, emphasised that while any child can be at risk of exploitation, some are particularly vulnerable when families cannot afford organised and supervised activities. She noted that the pandemic saw a rise in new forms of exploitation, with children increasingly groomed, recruited, and exploited over social media, chat rooms, and gaming platforms.
Jess Edwards, the charity’s senior policy adviser for childhood harms, highlighted that it is not a child’s responsibility to identify exploitation in their lives. She suggested that families can look out for physical signs such as unexplained injuries or infections, emotional changes, mental health issues, behavioural changes, more sexualised behaviour, bodily discomfort, or possession of money or expensive items without explanation.
The government’s Online Safety Bill, which aims to regulate internet content to help keep users safe and hold companies responsible for their material, is currently progressing through parliament. Rani Govender, the NSPCC’s senior child safety online policy officer, stressed the importance of the bill in protecting children and holding senior tech managers personally liable if their sites continue to facilitate child sexual abuse.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) referred to its research which found a 9% increase in child sex abuse material containing images and videos made or shared via an internet device with a camera in 2021 compared to the previous year. IWF chief executive Susie Hargreaves called for parents to be aware of the dangers and have open conversations with their children, stating that even one good, quality conversation can help prevent this type of abuse from continuing.