The time has come to end abuse and exploitation online
Global crises continue to upend the lives of children and youth, making it harder than ever for them to thrive and reach their full potential. Recently, President Biden took a step to address one of these crises, releasing a Presidential Memorandum establishing the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse. Focusing on “illegal conduct,” including cyberstalking, online abuse linked to child sex abuse material and trafficking, this task force is an essential step to curb abuse children face.
All children and youth deserve to grow up safe and cared for — no matter where they live. They cannot pursue their dreams, let alone remain safe, if they are facing threats online. Instead of being a place for learning, playing, and connecting with friends and family, the Internet has become a place rife with ways to exploit and abuse children. Reports of suspected online sexual exploitation of children increased 73 percent from 2019 to 2021 according to NCMEC. UNICEF reports that 80 percent of children fear sexual abuse or exploitation online. This wave of abuse is not new, but has increased more in recent years as COVID-19 forced many children to spend more time online and unsupervised.
It is interesting that this announcement comes on the heels of a global convening, where hundreds of leaders gathered to discuss the urgent crisis of online sexual exploitation and abuse of children (OSEAC). Notably, the United States was largely absent at the event, making no new commitments. While the task force is domestic, the Internet is global, and it is my sincere hope that the task force makes recommendations for rapid action to address and center the pervasive issue of online violence against children in its efforts.
This interagency effort aligns with ChildFund’s mission, the mission of our partners, and our efforts through OSEAC Coalition in calling for a holistic, multi-sectoral approach to children’s issues, including their online safety. Co-chaired by the White House’s Gender Policy Council and the National Security Council, and including the attorney general, the secretary of Health and Human Services and other heads of federal agencies and policy council, this task force highlights how the U.S. government can encourage greater interagency coordination and cooperation on critical issues. This taskforce is a good step, and we look forward to supporting this work in any way that we can. But we must act with urgency to do more.
It is heartening to know that survivors of online harassment will be actively engaged in this taskforce. They deserve to be equal partners in this work. But it must also include young people currently facing these kinds of threats. No one is better equipped to provide insight on the issues facing young people than children and youth themselves. They should be engaged as equal partners in every stage of developing and implementing policy and programming intended to help them. We must consult children before abuse occurs, protect their data and take their reports of abuse seriously.
We encourage the taskforce to work with young people, Congress and civil society to develop robust standards that place the best interests of children and youth at the center. One area of concern I hope they address is the patchwork of policies that allow tech companies to choose whether to take action to protect children. Rather than these voluntary measures, we need mandatory regulations, requiring all online platforms to protect children and their privacy.
I’m feeling hopeful about this announcement. This could be the moment the U.S. takes decisive action for protecting young people online. We can change these stories of abuse and ensure that this generation is one of opportunities. We can hold the private sector and U.S. government to their commitments and demand they do better. The urgency is now, and policymakers and regulators need to forcibly act to protect children.
Erin Kennedy is senior director of external engagement for ChildFund.
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