Vulnerable minors risk sex-predators’ online grooming

Vulnerable minors are at greater risk of sex-predators’ online grooming says Fr Hans Zollner SJ of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

He says the increased screen time and isolation due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is putting young people at greater risk than usual.

As a result of the pandemic, almost every nation has had young people spending a lot more time at home, “alone, online with no supervision or being checked on,” he says.

At the same time, “pornographic material also becomes more accessible” to predators and from them, to children who have no limits on what they can access and no guidance on what they should do to protect themselves from people contacting them online.

“We have to educate about protecting the dignity and respect of vulnerable people, especially young people,” Zollner says.

Zollner, who is also a professor of psychology and president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, spoke of his concerns at a “Safeguarding Webinar Series”, focusing on “safeguarding online in times of lockdown” and highlighted the kind of risks facing minors online.

Even children under the age of two are targeted with online grooming, sexting (which often takes place among peers), live streamed sexual abuse, cyber bullying and intimidation, he says.

Zollner says FBI research estimates that “at any one time, as many as 750,000 child predators are online over the internet seeking children to abuse online, and two-thirds of the world has no specific laws to combat online grooming of children for sex exploitation.”

“During the lockdown in Australia, downloading images of abuse shot up by 86 percent in the three weeks after 21 March.”

In addition, Zollner says the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the U.S. “has registered a 106% increase in reports of suspected (child sexual abuse) – rising from 983,734 reports in March 2019 to 2,027,520 in the very same month in 2020.”

The increase may be because of offenders’ isolation during lockdown and their inability to travel, which makes them more likely to turn to abuse livestreamed or distributed online, Zollner suggests.

At the same time, places like schools or social services for reporting abuse or harassment have been disrupted or reduced and many enforcement agencies’ focus is putting a lower priority on online child sexual exploitation in favour of enforcing regulations for handling the pandemic.

Vulnerable minors can be safeguarded by parents and caregivers by using software that allows for parental controls on what people can do online – even though kids sometimes find ways to circumvent it.

Catholic schools also have an important role to play in educating kids about staying safe online, Zollner says.


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