Sexting, webcams and naked Whatsapp contests: The secret online lives of children

B9428N Sexual harassment by text message (w/o phone manufacturer's logo).. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.
B9428N Sexual harassment by text message (w/o phone manufacturer’s logo).. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

The National Crime Agency has launched a new campaign to educate parents about children sending sexually explicit images of themselves on the web. Dr Laura Toogood reports and offers tips on dealing with this disturbing trend

Technology is developing at a rapid rate. It has changed the way we interact with people and increased the access points to our lives.

Nowhere is this more true than in the bedrooms of teenagers and young children all over Britain (and the world).

And a growing chorus of voices is now warning of the very real risks they face online.

This week, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has announced it’s launching a campaign to give parents advice on how to respond if their child becomes involved in sexting. It has issued a warning that the practices of sexting and sending nude or explicit photographs over the internet has become “normal” among teenagers – who rarely think through the consequences.

Children can be left vulnerable to exploitation or blackmail, and is even being used by sex offenders in a bid to snare youngsters to rape and abuse, it said. While police and child protection experts are dealing with at least one case every day of children being ensnared in serious cases of “sexting”, including grooming attempts by paedophiles.

The NCA’s centre for tackling abuse, CEOP Command, receives on average one report a day of a child protection issue linked to sexting.

In some instances under-18s are tricked into sending intimate photographs of themselves to adult sex offenders who then attempt to blackmail them into sending more – in what detectives have dubbed “sextortion”.

Other serious cases have involved sexual images which were sent privately to a boyfriend or girlfriend being distributed widely after a relationship turned sour.

It’s worrying stuff. And it comes just weeks after a disturbing report by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) revealed that a significant number of children – some as young as seven – are posting explicit images of themselves online and allowing strangers to view them in sexual poses via webcams in their bedrooms.

Over a three month period, nearly 4,000 photos or videos were uploaded. A significant percentage of these featured children aged 15 and under. Many are believed to be 10-years-old, or younger. The content is at risk of being viewed by sex offenders, with some adults encouraging children to carry out lurid sexual acts so they can view and share the material.

What’s even sadder is that we’re no stranger to stories like this.

Over the past 12 months, we’ve learnt that children as young as 11 are becoming victims of revenge porn. And we’ve seen young celebrities have their private (and explicit) photos hacked and leaked on to the internet.

Worryingly, this latest report indicates that we may only have seen the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the online sexual abuse of children.

No longer can you consider your children safe when they are in their bedroom at home: chat rooms, webcams, online dating sites and iPhone apps present a whole host of threats.

The most disturbing problem is that they arm predatory paedophiles with the tools to trawl for potential victims. Just this year, vigilante group Dark Justice trapped a paedophile after he agreed to meet a girl he knew to be 14.

Social media platforms, apps, phones and other devices can all have their security compromised.

There have already been incidents where baby monitors have been hacked as a result of users not changing the default settings, which allowed people to dial in remotely. Webcams and similar devices are also vulnerable to socially engineered hacks.

Such methods are becoming increasingly advanced and normally involve individuals being tricked into clicking a link on a website, or in an email. This then installs malware on their machine and results in the hacker gaining access and control of the computer, potentially including webcams.


However, the vulnerabilities do not lie within the devices alone. Social media plays a significant role.

Facebook has arguably redefined the meaning of ‘friend’. Before its existence, a friend was someone you knew in real life (probably for a number of years), trusted implicitly and was part of your close-knit group. A friend was considered a strong tie; someone with whom you could share intimate secrets.

Now? You can become ‘friends’ with someone at the click of a button.

I have written before about the concern of children valuing popularity over privacy and how they want to have as many online friends as possible. Whether they actually know these friends is irrelevant and this poses a significant threat. Even if they have never met the person – know nothing about their new contact and cannot reasonably trust them – young girls still allow them access to their lives.

Sharing intimate or sexualised images has become increasingly common behaviour.

The online porn industry and celebrity culture of posting near-naked selfies on social media sites (with the celeb’s consent) has made a ‘reveal all’ society seem more acceptable.

Zoe Hilton, head of safeguarding at CEOP Command, said staff received hundreds of reports a year of “difficult and sometimes harmful” situations linked to sexting.

“We are talking about cases where sexting has led to a child protection issue,” she said.

“Something that has started out as relatively innocent or normal for the young people involved has unfortunately turned into something that is quite nasty and needs intervention in order to safeguard and protect the child.

“Some of the worst examples are children sharing images of themselves and making themselves very vulnerable,” she added.

Through my work at Digitalis, an online reputation management company, I have also found there is pressure put on young women to pose naked and share explicit images.

I have spoken to the devastated family of a teenager, who was filmed as a boy performed a sex act on her. The video clip and still images, which captured a graphic and invasive close-up view, were posted online and became the first search results for her name.

And I have advised the parents of an 11-year-old girl, who was being contacted by strangers on Instagram.

One incident I encountered involved a teenager, who began an online relationship with a man she’d never met. This is relatively commonplace, of course, with dating websites and apps such as Tinder.

However, after several virtual exchanges, during which trust was built, he began to encourage her to send him intimate images.

At first, he said they were for his eyes only. When he was met with some (understandable) resistance, he questioned her trust before justifying it by saying ‘everyone does it’.

In his final attempt to convince her to send explicit photos, he explained that he’d rather look at her than see online pornography. She felt obliged – but her initial fears were realised when he posted the pictures online for the world to see.

Once published, such images can become incredibly difficult to remove. The perpetrator may take measures to hide their identify, software can assist with automated duplication and images can be hosted in foreign jurisdictions.

This presents a number of challenges when it comes to tracking and removing the content.

I have also come across incidences where explicit images of girlfriends (past and present) have been collected and shared by groups of teenage boys via apps, such as WhatsApp. It becomes a competition – with the goal being to get the biggest collection and the most daring images. Often the girls involved have no knowledge of their picture being taken in the first place.

New laws in England and Wales have been designed to protect victims of revenge porn and the sharing of explicit images.

However, preventing it from happening in the first instance is still a major challenge. The most frightening fact of all – as indicated by this latest report – is that the age of victims is becoming even lower.

So what can be done? Here, I’ve compiled some advice to help you protect yourself – or your children – from becoming victims.

Tips for protecting yourself and children online

Anti Virus Software

Make sure you have up to date antivirus software and a firewall installed on your computer such as Windows Security Essentials. Encryption software such as Symantec Drive Encryption or Windows bitlocker also adds an extra level of security.

Do not click on suspicious links

Viruses can be spread via links in emails. Do not open any messages from unknown or unexpected addresses.

Make your children aware

Highlight the risks of interacting and making friends with people who they don’t know online. Guide young children through the internet journey – you wouldn’t let them walk alone in a vast city , so don’t let them go unguided here.

Implement family settings

Apply any settings that automatically block inappropriate content. However, be aware they are not always foolproof and need regular checks.


Make sure you use strong passwords that include a combination of numbers, upper and lower case characters and symbols. Avoid using the same passwords for multiple accounts. You may want to consider using a password manager like LastPass to help you manage this.

Security Questions

Social engineering is popular with hackers – this means they collect data about you to help them bypass passwords. This can include guessing security questions, such as your birthplace, which maybe available on your Facebook profile. Where possible always set your own security question – one that’s not answerable with publicly available information. Where security answers must be chosen from a pre-set list, consider using information that is incorrect but that you will still remember, for example instead of using your real birthplace, perhaps pick your favourite city.

Read about the privacy settings

Make sure you read advice about social media privacy settings so that your accounts have the appropriate level of protection.

Test your social media accounts

Log out of all accounts and see what you are able to access as an anonymous user. Using Google Incognito is a good way of conducting searches that are unaffected by your search history.

WiFi wise

Avoid joining any public networks that are not password protected.

Log out

Make sure you log out of all personal accounts if you are using a public computer.

Think before you post

Make a decision as to whether you mind certain information, or images being posted online. How you would feel if they were shared by a third party?

Wipe old devices

If you sell your mobile phone or iPad, make sure all data has been wiped from the device before it changes hands.

Source: The Telegraph