23 Apr 2024

Child exploitation cases will increase by thousands every year if no action taken - expert

10:51 pm on 23 April 2024
Little boy child kid playing games on smartphone mobile phone outdoor. Technology generation.

Photo: 123RF

Child exploitation cases will worsen in New Zealand by thousands every year if no action is taken, a woman advocating for better protection for children says.

It comes as police urge parents and young people to stay safe online amongst a continued rise in child exploitation.

Between 2022 and 2023, New Zealand authorities received nearly 5000 additional referrals from the US site Cyber Tipline - a report line for child exploitation.

These included sextortion and child sexual abuse material being posted online and sent via private messages.

Detective Senior Sergeant Kepal Richards, who leads the Online Child Exploitation Across New Zealand team, said the number of referrals from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the US to New Zealand was concerning.

"It's 36.2 million referrals they had which is extremely high, of those about 20,000 are received by New Zealand agencies which includes the Department of Internal Affairs, Customs and police. We receive about 200 referrals a month for investigation," Richards said.

Makes Sense co-founder and sex therapist Jo Robertson said she was disappointed at the rise but not shocked by it.

"There's been a serious lack of action for decades in this space, no surprises for anybody who works with children, young people families or who work in online safety. I'm glad that they put out this memo to try and build awareness, but if it's not followed through by action then it doesn't mean much," Robertson said.

"It's guaranteed that it's an increasing issue, and we're going to see thousands more numbers every year. That's not debatable at this point, given the data trajectory we've already seen."

She was advising parents to not leave children alone with devices with cameras or allow them to have the ability to talk with strangers online.

"So that's changing either one of the types of games they're playing or to changing the functionality of the game so they can only talk to friends.

"No child should be in a room by themselves with a device with a camera, I don't see why they need to be personally. So if they have a device that has a camera or just watching anything on a device as opposed to a TV, they should be in a shared space and what that means is that they're much less likely to do something that makes them vulnerable," Robertson said.

Richards put the rise down to advances in technology.

"Most young people these days have devices that are capable of connecting to the internet and so they've grown up using their devices online. So they've grown up using their devices online and it's very hard for parents to maintain supervision of young people whilst they're on their devices.

"Offenders are constantly looking for ways that they can target young people and artificial intelligence is one of those ways that they can manipulate imagery and then use that against our young people."

The warning also comes a day after job cuts at the Department of Internal Affairs - which Robertson was bewildered by.

The department said it was proposing a loss of eight roles from the digital safety team, of which five were vacant.

The changes "ensure that core investigation and compliance activity can be maintained".

"I'm somewhat confused by the child exploitation team cuts, I'd like to see how they're going to continue their front-line work given those cuts," Robertson said.

"My hope is that it means they're going to do better filtering at a systemic level and that they won't need as many people in the team to actually have eyes over the content, but they haven't said that so at the moment we're just left guessing around what that means in practise."

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