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Four-year-olds taught for the first time about online dangers as threat increases

For the first time, the National Crime Agency is engaging with children as young as four in a bid to help protect them online as the number of global child sexual abuse referrals has rocketed.

The NCA has launched the latest strand of its educational work, as the scale and severity of online child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE) continue to increase.

Parents, carers and teachers can use Jessie & Friends – a fun, friendly and age-appropriate education resource based on a three-episode series of animations – to help to keep 4-7s safe online.

Jessie & Friends does not depict any scenario involving an adult sexual offender; instead it establishes safe scenarios that enable children to learn to identify unhealthy behaviours.

Engaging activities, designed for classroom use, support children to recognise manipulative strategies in online chat – just like those typically used by offenders to groom children.

Crucially, Jessie & Friends helps children learn to ask a trusted adult for help whenever they feel worried.

The launch comes as the threat to children has grown more than ever.

In 2004 there were 110,000 global referrals to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) – the US based body to which the tech industry reports online child sexual abuse material.

By 2017 industry referrals had risen to 10.2m globally, and last year the figure had rocketed to 18.4m. Of those, 82,109 were UK-related in 2017, rising to 113,948 in 2018.

Through coordinated activity against online CSAE, the NCA and UK police forces arrest around 400 offenders a month and safeguard 500 children a month.

Investigators are seeing a very disturbing change in offender behaviour, with the increasing contact abuse of pre-verbal and very young children.

Some of the grooming by sophisticated offenders of younger and younger children, through their access to digital technology, is also extremely disturbing.

There are many parents – whose children are victims – who had no idea that their children were developing relationships online and were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The aim of Jessie and Friends is to provide protective education to children before they begin to encounter such risks online, making children less likely to become victims and less likely to be targeted by high-risk offenders.

NCA Director Rob Jones yesterday said:

“As the threat continues to rise it is vital to focus on preventing offending.

“We are already asking ‘how did it get this bad?’ So in 10 years’ time we must be able to look back and see that we stopped it from getting worse.

“Arresting offenders is not the only answer to the problem.

“While we are pursuing offenders we are using the insight we gain from their behaviour to produce educational products we can use across the system, to create resilience in children.

“We need parents, carers and teachers to discuss this sensitive issue in a positive way, and Jessie & Friends will help them to do this.

“In addition, there needs to be zero tolerance to the presence of child sexual abuse material online. Industry needs to design out preventable offending through the use of technology to reduce the prevalence of material so it is not easy to access it.”

With 19% of 3-4s and 43% of 5-7s owning their own tablets, according to a recent Ofcom report that also said 52% of 3-4s and 82% of 5-7s go online for an average of nine hours or more each week, experts at the NCA are encouraging adults to start the dialogue about online safety with children as young as four.

A series of video clips and a catchy song on social media platforms will signpost to the Jessie & Friends resource on the NCA’s Thinkuknow website, and help parents begin those crucial conversations.

Parents and teachers can also get involved in the campaign by sharing the videos with friends and family along with the tag #KidsSaferOnline.

Essential NCA advice for parents and carers:

  1. Use Jessie & Friends or another Thinkuknow resource as an easy way to start a positive online safety conversation with your child.
  2. Open and ongoing conversation is key to understanding your child’s online life and keeping them safe.
  3. Make sure your child knows that if they are ever worried about anything they can come to you for help.
  4. Set up parental controls on your internet connection, devices and online services to limit children’s access to harmful content
  5. With your child, review privacy settings on the apps and the sites they use and together, agree safe, appropriate settings.


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