Jump in sexual assaults of children groomed online

The RCH recently released a podcast episode on child grooming and sexual assault. In this episode we look at what is grooming and how does it start? What are the warning signs to look out for? And what can parents do if they suspect someone may be grooming their child? Listen today on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Words by Wendy Tuohy, The Age.

One in five child sexual assault victims were found online by their perpetrator in 2019, up from one in 20 prior to 2013, say two Melbourne forensic doctors who have studied 70 child sexual assaults facilitated by the use of technology.

Dr Joanna Tully and Dr Janine Rowse warn children have reduced awareness of stranger danger while online, after examining data on children needing forensic examinations since 2007.

They found a big upswing since 2015 in perpetrators using social media platforms, especially Snapchat and dating sites, to communicate with children aged between 12 and 17 before meeting and assaulting them.

The victims groomed online were mostly girls, with a peak age of 14 to 15. The perpetrators were male with some being up to 25 years older than the victim.

Dr Tully, deputy director of the Victorian Forensic Paediatric Medical Service at The Royal Children’s and Monash hospitals, said of 450 child sexual assault victims needing examination between 2007 and 2013, one in 25 were after assaults where the offender had used technology to find them.

Between 2014 and 2020, one in five of 515 child assault victims had been found via technology, though the researchers said that because most child sexual abuse is never reported and an even smaller faction of cases are seen in time for forensic examination to collect DNA their statistics represented “the tip of the iceberg”.

As the office of eSafety works to counter a continued spike in technology facilitated child sexual abuse since the onset of the pandemic, the doctors are warning parents, social media platforms and educators that children lose inhibition towards strangers online and most child sexual assaults happen at the first face-to-face meeting.

In what they believe is the longest study of child sexual assault cases facilitated by technology, they found 96 per cent of the cases involved penetrative assault and in three quarters no condom was used. “Our concern is these are high-risk assaults,” Dr Tully said.

“Offenders were able to create the idea of a relationship in the child’s mind and that reduced their sense of stranger danger.”

Dr Rowse, senior forensic registrar at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, said would-be perpetrators were willing to invest time in grooming child victims. “We have seen a substantial amount of cases where online communication took place for more than two weeks, in some cases up to a year, before the sexual assault occurred.”

However in other cases “the victim and the offender communicated for less than a day, they met online and on the same day met face to face and the sexual assault happened”.

In the early years of the study, between 2007 and 2013, three-quarters of offenders had used Facebook to communicate with child victims, but between 2014-2016 dating apps, many that children should be too young to access, started to feature.

Between 2017 and 2020, Snapchat had been the platform employed by nearly half of offenders.

Teen dating apps such as MyLOL and Yubo, as well as adult dating sites such as Tinder, Grindr and Skout, accounted for a third of the contacts, while Facebook declined to just 16 per cent.

About one-third of the technologically facilitated assaults happened at the offender’s home, and just over a third occurred at public places including parks and public toilets.

Dr Rowse expressed concerns about children on adult sites and children too young to be on Snapchat regularly using it. “The minimum age for Snapchat is 13 but according to a study just out by [international tech child protection agency] Thorn, about 40 per cent of children aged nine to 12 use it every day.”

Dr Tully said the road safety equivalents of “seat belts and air bags” did not exist on platforms children commonly used and there should be far greater safety accountability demanded of platforms, including greater control of minors having access to them and better responses when incidents of concern were reported by children.

“And the legal system needs to increase accountability for platforms that fail to keep children safe,” she said.

Earlier education about risks, including “the reframing of stranger danger” online, and stronger messages that “friends are not friends when you only meet them online” should be delivered to children.

Dr Rowse said while adult dating sites such as Tinder had attempted to improve safety (through practical and data-based means) “we’ve noticed there doesn’t seem to be the same concern for children and we hope to shine a light on this, it’s the missing part”.

The number of children who report the assault within the timeframe required to gather DNA evidence was also only a “small subset” of the real number of victims.

Barriers for reporting offences to police were are probably higher for children than for adults, due to the heightened sense of “stigma and shame, the sense of responsibility for the assault because they willingly met with the perpetrator, or sometimes because of the sharing of sexual images”.

“Fear of parental or group peer reactions are also an important barrier to reporting offences,” Dr Tully said.

Dr Rowse said platforms were evolving so fast it was almost impossible for parents to stay informed about which post what risks to children.

“We acknowledge that technology is now a fundamental part of the lives of children. We think it’s difficult for parents to be fully accountable for what their children are doing online, it [prevention of and response to sexual abuse facilitated by technology] has to be far more systemic than that,” she said.

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