INHOPE | Webinar Recap: Data for Change
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Webinar Recap: Data for Change

How important are data and evidence-based approaches to tackling global digital safety issues? This question was addressed during INHOPE's last Expert Insights webinar. Serena Tommasino, the Safe Online Advocacy and Knowledge Lead at the The End Violence Partnership highlighted the importance of evidence-based approaches to child online safety, while Daniel Kardefelt-Winther UNICEF's research lead on Digital Engagement and Protection, guided participants through a deep-dive into the large-scale research project Disrupting Harm.

The End Violence Partnership is a platform for collective, evidence-based action focussed on tackling all forms of violence against children, including those facilitated by digital technology. Since 2017, they have invested about $76 million in 95 projects across 80 countries. Serena shared that the organisation accepts funds from various donors and invests them in different countries and regions based on their three priority pillars (1) technology investments, (2) strengthening national systems, and (3) evidence and data generation.

"There is a huge need for data and evidence generation in this field," shared Serena, which is why $20 million of collected funds go towards this purpose. The lack of systematic and harmonised data collection and analysis of online risks and harms for children remains a barrier to creating a safe internet for young people. These gaps impact the accurate identification of needs and effective measurement of progress. To develop effective systems and approaches to protecting children, we first must collect the relevant data on why and how children are exposed to risks in the first place. We must learn which children are the most vulnerable, but also what countries are already doing to tackle this, Serena explained. This is why, stakeholders from different sectors came together late last year at the Safe Digital Futures for Children: Data for Change event, to build a more robust and comprehensive data ecosystem on online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Based on the findings and discussions from this event, the End Violence Partnership published a briefing note outlining how data can help in the fight against online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

The Power of Data

Data can inform which areas we need to dedicate funds to, but it can also generate political will, catalyse action, and mobilise resources for evidence-informed investments. Malaysia is a great example of how data can drive critical policy action. Informed by Disrupting Harm findings, a series of evidence-based legislation recommendations were proposed to strengthen law enforcement agencies, justice processes, social services and public awareness. The Malaysian government took several of those recommendations into consideration. The justice process was adjusted to make it more child-friendly, and sextortion and live-streamed child sexual abuse were included as distinct offences in the country's legislation. These actions were supported by the data revealed in the Disrupting Harm project, which shows the gravity and importance of investing in evidence generation.

The Disrupting Harm Project

"Online sexual abuse is not always fully accounted for in national legislation, not always fully understood by society, and not properly managed by institutions meant to serve children’s needs. As a result, many children are at risk of harm," said Daniel at the start of his presentation. So what does it mean for children when crimes are committed against them in the digital environment, but national legislation is not equipped to prosecute them? Unfortunately, this situation is a reality for many children worldwide.

To better understand how digital technology facilitates the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, and to assess how national systems are responding to this crime, the Safe Online Initiative at End Violence Partnership invested $7 million to develop the innovative research project Disrupting Harm. The Partnership brought together and funded three global organisations – ECPAT International, INTERPOL and the UNICEF Innocenti Global Office of Research and Foresight – to undertake new research in thirteen countries across Eastern and Southern Africa and Southeast Asia. The research project investigated the digital experiences of youth between twelve and seventeen and examined how local systems are equipped to protect and support children in dealing with online harm.

Key Research Insights

"Even in countries with relatively lower internet access, children's exposure to online risks and online sexual abuse can be just as high," Daniel explained as he took attendees through a deep dive into the most striking results. There is a misconception that children in high-connectivity countries generally are at higher risk of online abuse. But this research suggests that this is not necessarily the case. For instance, among countries included in Disrupting Harm, Uganda showed the second-highest rate of online child sexual abuse, while only 40% of children are connected. Social media use across these 13 countries remains very consistent.

Risks Online

  • On average around 1/3 of children saw sexual content unexpectedly online. 41% of this content was encountered on social media, 33% in advertisements, 26% via direct messages and 19% through search engines.
  • 17% of children have experienced some type of sexual harassment online, with 16% reporting they have received an unwanted image. Most children received these images via social media.
  • Around 6% of children took sexual images/videos of themselves, and 6% also shared these images online. While many of these instances seemed to be consensual, several reported incidents were forced or extorted.
  • National (rough) estimates of online child sexual abuse range from 1% to 20% across the investigated countries.

Over half of the children subjected to online sexual exploitation or abuse reported that it occurred on social media. And most children who have experienced online sexual violence also experienced abuse in person. The report showed that victims of such abuse are 2-4 more likely to self-harm or have suicidal thoughts compared to other children. This is especially worrying considering 34% of children do not disclose the abuse to anyone, meaning many children suffer alone through the impact of the abuse. Daniel explained, that children who do decide to disclose abuse mostly share it with family, friends or caregivers. Only a few actually report incidents to a helpline or the police.

The Perpetrators of Sexual Violence

  • Most common perpetrators vary across countries, but in many cases, they are family or friends of the victim. In a few cases, strangers were the most common group of perpetrators named.
  • Especially younger children, between twelve and thirteen years old were reluctant to disclose their perpetrator. 1/3 of children preferred not to share the perpetrator's identity at all. This demonstrates the importance of more in-depth research in this area.
  • National prevention initiatives and education programmes must be data-driven, based on local country data and tailored to the experiences of the children within the country.

Many young children are not willing to disclose the identity of their abuser, and much more research is needed to develop data-driven approaches to tackling this area, shared Daniel. "Awareness messaging and protective measures where strangers are the most common perpetrator need to look different, compared to countries where the perpetrator is more likely to be a familiar person the child knew before."

The lack of data in this area demonstrates the importance of investing further resources in addressing this topic. As of now, Daniel stressed even if children finally decide to report the abuse, not all have a positive experience. Many legal systems worldwide are not yet appropriately equipped to tackle such cases of abuse. Our goal should be to develop strong evidence-based justice and support systems so that all children feel comfortable seeking help when it's needed.

The large-scale research project Disrupting Harm concluded its first phase in 2022. The success of the first phase of the project has led to a renewed $7.5 million commitment in 2022 and expansion in 12 countries across 4 new regions. Explore the data insights from phase one, and make sure to follow the developments of phase two of the project here.

Webinar Recording

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Webinar Recap: Data for Change

Online sexual abuse is not always fully accounted for in national legislation, not always fully understood by society, and not properly managed by institutions meant to serve children’s needs. As a result, many children are at risk of harm.