Bringing safeguarding into the digital era

Posted: 18th April 2024

Source: (13) Bringing safeguarding into the digital era | LinkedIn

In the digital era that we now live in, we can no longer think of internet safety or e-safety as a separate entity when safeguarding children and young people. In fact, if someone tries to tell you of the importance of “e-safety” in the traditional sense, then you should probably stop listening to them. This is 2016 and “e-safety” as we once knew it is now dead. Today, the online world and the “real” world are so integrated that digital safeguarding IS safeguarding.

Therefore, we can’t simply think of the internet as an afterthought when trying to protect the wellbeing of children and young people.

When I consider online safety, I think of safeguarding in the context of children’s access to technology and their use of social networking sites. However, it’s also important to consider the more hidden dangers, away from the mainstream and easily-accessible public face of the internet. I’m referring to the deep web and more specifically, the dark web. If you haven’t heard of the dark web before, then you are probably quite unlikely to stumble upon it.

It lies beneath the surface of the everyday websites that are accessible via Google and other search engines, in the deep web. It cannot be accessed by traditional web browsers, only via anonymising software, which I won’t go into in too much detail, as I merely wish to inform, not facilitate its use.

The deep web is gigantic and it is impossible to verify how many web pages that are on it at any one time. The anonymity that it provides has made it a labyrinth of criminal activities, some of which directly affect the lives of children and young people. Therefore, it is important for safeguarding and child protection professionals to have at least a basic knowledge of what it is.

Although often used interchangeably, the above graphic highlights the difference between the dark web/ net and the deep web.  Generally, the ‘Deep Web’ is a generic term for all unindexed web pages that can’t be found through search engines such as Google or Bing. The Deep Web includes many webpages that are encrypted with passwords or documents in formats which is why they cannot be indexed.

Gaining access to the deep web is not a difficult process. The hard part is knowing where to look and where not to look. Access to the dark web is not difficult from here. Due to the illicit and illegal material contained on it, I would advise against even browsing it out of curiosity.

The deep/dark web also makes ‘trolling’ easier. Although sites such as Reddit, 4Chan, Ask FM and to a lesser-extent Twitter are home to many people who hide their identity to antagonise others, the dark web gives them an extra cloak of protection. This is partly the reason that I feel that there should be a ‘masquerading’ law, to prevent people from assuming false or anonymous identities.

I’ve seen countless cases of trolling, often done for sport, which have led to depression, self-harm and suicide attempts amongst vulnerable children and young people.

Besides trolling, the dark web provides child abusers with a means of distributing indecent images of children globally to fellow abusers and has made it easier to do so. Although it has made the job of policing this and safeguarding children increasingly difficult, it is still necessary to be aware of.

It’s also important to note that up to a third of these images are now generated by the young people themselves whilst sexting and sharing them online. Child abusers source and curate these images in the dark web.  This shows the normalcy of sexting to young people and how it has become a part of their everyday lives, which is another reason the concept of “e-safety” has become so outdated.

It goes without saying, but due to the nature of the dark web, it is important to restrict children and young people’s access to it. It is always a good rule to try and limit the unsupervised access to the internet that a child has. Children and young people are bound to find this secret section of the internet alluring and may want to investigate. To appease the young person’s interest, you could instead persuade them to join a code club for computer programming to develop their interests in a safer environment.

Any post about the dark web would not be complete without a sensationalised tale of the lurid criminal underbelly it houses. Although it is true that many people use the dark web to purchase drugs and other illegal items, the dark web is also used by people who want to remain anonymous for security and privacy reasons. That includes people who may need to shield their identity and communications from surveillance from the state or other agencies, such as investigative journalists or whistle-blowers. The deep web is used daily for a wide variety of reasons by the military, police and activists, among others.

I have decided to write about the dark web to enhance your understanding of it, rather than rouse your interest. The Dark Web isn’t for spectators and given the illicit and criminal activity that can lurk on it, merely visiting it can be risky. It is still important to know about the factors that could endanger the safety and wellbeing of children and young people though especially, as I mentioned, in the context of their access to and use of technology.

However, if you are interested in finding out more, you may want to attend one of the Glimpse: Into the Dark Web conferences, which will feature speakers such as Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos and author of ‘The Dark Net’ and of course, myself.

About the Glimpse: Into the Dark Web conferences

The Glimpse: Into the Dark Web conferences take place this June in Belfast (8th), London (10th) and Birmingham (13th). They have been designed to provide a credible insight into the subcultures that exist in the dark net and the risk indicators in children’s lives that make them vulnerable to on and offline grooming, sexualisation, radicalisation and gang affiliation. It poses the question what makes someone sexually abuse children and uses the interviews of predators themselves to reflect possible answers. They have been created to educate and inform those involved in criminology, psychology, policing, social work, teaching, child protection and safeguarding. A highly credible group of expert speakers have been assembled that will share advice and provide contemporary and practical information and insight across the three conferences and include Chief Constable of the PSNI George Hamilton, QPM and NCA Director General Lynne Owens, CBE QPM.  

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