Today, young children are exploring digital platforms – and at younger and younger ages. While online access opens up a world of learning, unfortunately, it also opens up a world of harm. Child helplines around the world are literally on the frontlines, seeing the wide variety of harms children experience online. Through Aselo®, our open source platform launched in 2021, Tech Matters continues to innovate to enable child helpline counselors around the world to address these growing online threats.
One of the most concerning issues is the proliferation of ‘self-generated’ imagery, such as private pictures and videos – and non-consensual sharing of these photos and videos. These images can originate from various sources, ranging from malicious grooming or sextortion tactics employed by individuals with nefarious intentions to vengeful ex-partners seeking to inflict harm. Sadly, even imagery children create as they explore their own healthy sexual learning journey can be subjected to misuse, exploiting and violating the privacy of these youth. According to the 2022 Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) Annual Report, while children aged 11-13 have historically been most frequently affected, there has been a staggering increase in the proportion of children aged 7-10 who have appeared in this imagery, up 129% from 2021.
While perpetrators of online abuse, extortion, grooming and a variety of other harms against children have quickly leveraged new technologies and legal gaps to innovate methods of targeting children, the global response to protect our children has not advanced at the same rate. What makes the issue even more challenging is that these harms and the perpetrators behind them are not limited by physical or geographical boundaries. Online child abuse can originate from someone across town or from the other side of the world, meaning that support for victims requires deeply coordinated efforts between legal enforcement entities, policymakers, social support services, community sensitization, and technology providers on a global scale.
Thanks to financial support from the End Violence Fund, Tech Matters has partnered with the IWF and the RATI Foundation for Social Change to provide the first portal in India, the Meri Trustline, where children will be assisted in preventing their intimate imagery from being shared without consent. Children now have the option to securely upload self-captured pictures, videos, and site URLs to the IWF, where it can swiftly be incorporated into a blocking list that prevents further sharing.
The need for this service is clear. Non-consensual taking and sharing of intimate imagery have significant, long-lasting effects on its victims. Around the world, there have been cases of victims suffering from social isolation, withdrawal, PTSD, anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide. In addition to this immense psychological harm, victims often experience associated harm physically or financially. Educational efforts with communities, parents, and children are a critical component of prevention strategies to increase digitally safe behaviour and recognise that perpetrators no longer need to be physically close to children to cause harm.
The Meri Trustline is available to children via multiple channels, including voice, WhatsApp, and email. Counselors at the Trustline support victims through the entire process, from the moment they reach out, counselling them through the fears of their content being shared, and guiding the child towards action through the reporting process.
According to Dan Sexton, Chief Technology Officer at the Internet Watch Foundation, “This new mechanism using Tech Matters’ platform, Aselo, will allow a young person in India to report images and videos directly to the IWF, so that we can get this content on to our blocking lists and off the internet as swiftly as possible.”
Aselo also allows the Meri Trustline counselors to incorporate the entire exchange into the victim’s case record, making follow-up and reporting easy. Coordinating the approach with the Trustline in this way ensures that the child is supported and empowered, while also increasing the ability for the IWF analysts to quickly add content hashes to the blocking list by managing requirements like age verification without causing additional stress to the victim or deterring victims from reporting at all.
Tech Matters will continue to collaborate with IWF and our helpline partnerships across the world to explore impactful ways for Aselo to support the fight against one of humanity’s darkest evils. It is our objective to actively participate in a global, cross-sectoral, coordinated response to end this crisis, leveraging technology in multiple ways to realise a future where every child can safely, simply…be a child.