It is commonly understood that the internet and digital technologies confer both positive opportunities and risks to children and young people. This chapter is concerned with the latter, specifically exploring how the evolution, design and control of the internet and digital technology have been conducive to child sexual exploitation (CSE) – both CSE involving online elements and that which does not directly. Theorising and understanding this opens up avenues for more effective prevention and intervention.
Because CSE closely entwines and overlaps with other harms, such as familial sexual abuse, sexist sexual objectification and sexual harassment, this chapter is also relevant to understanding the influence of technology on these problems. Indeed, one argument made here is that online factors have amplified CSE in part via their influence on ‘lesser’ issues such as harassment and objectification. These may contribute to CSE by implicitly reinforcing harmful gender norms and signalling permission (Thomae and Pina 2015), while also being pernicious in and of themselves, their impact akin to a dripping tap.
Numerous utopian and dystopian visions have been projected onto the continuing evolution of digital technology (Naughton 2012). What these visions often have in common is a sense of inevitability, and this sense is also shared by those claiming the digital future is impossible to predict. This chapter is built on, and evidences, a contrasting position: currently technology (tech) contributes to significant harm to children (notwithstanding its positives), but there is no reason that this has to continue. Technology has been developed by humans, and so humans canfurther shape it, our understanding of it, and our interactions with it, to now prioritise the rights of children and young people. More specifically, we have agency to make the online space hostile to sexual exploitation.
The rising awareness of the range and severity of problems amplified or brought into motion online (including disinformation and online hatred) is currently provoking calls for fundamental change and a greater determination by governments to more effectively regulate the online space (see for example the UK government's recent Online Harms white paper, and the development of an Age Appropriate Design Code by the Information Commissioner's Office). All of these may lead to increased self-reflection within the tech industry (Zunger 2018). This has created a ripe moment in which to understand and more confidently challenge online practices and dynamics conducive to CSE and to chart new pathways (Davidson and Bifulco 2019).