Phylicia Henry of Courtney's House DC speaks about online child safety at the "Protecting Children from Online Exploitation" national symposium
November 13, 2019

Industry Experts Sound Alarm on Emerging Threats to Online Child Safety at NCOSE Symposium

Online child safety should be top of mind for all of us—not just parents. We protect children from undue harm and exploitation from harmful industries elsewhere—such as the tobacco industry—but our systems and laws have not kept pace with technological advancement and our children’s well-being is at severe risk as a result.

That reality was the driving force behind the presentations and policy recommendations laid out by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) and several other industry experts at the national symposium on “Protecting Children from Online Exploitation: Advancing Policy Solutions to Solve Child Sexual Exploitation in the Digital Age” in Washington, D.C. on November 6, 2019.

Information on NCOSE’s “Protecting Children from Online Exploitation” national symposium

View the flyer here

View the agenda here

Recap of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s national symposium on “Protecting Children from Online Exploitation”

Although our experts spoke to a variety of types of harm that children are faced with online, the impetus of the symposium was clear: online child safety is being sacrificed for profit by large tech companies consumed with their own bottom lines and current legislative policies are powerless to offer children and families viable protection from those companies and their products.

Phylicia Henry from Courtney’s House, an organization that helps underage survivors of sex trafficking to recover, opened up about how the average age of the minors coming into Courtney’s House is growing younger at a stunning pace and how the girls they are working with are increasingly pointing to the significant role digital platforms like Instagram play in their grooming and abuse.

Stacie Hoffman of Oxford Information Labs broke down the complexities and potential online child safety implications of DoH (DNS-over-HTTPS) implementations being worked on by large tech corporations like Google, Mozilla, Cloudflare, and others with little to no oversight.

Banners from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation's symposium about online child safety
Banners for NCOSE’s Freedom Agenda stand outside the Gold Room in the Rayburn building in Washington, D.C.

Chris McKenna of Protect Young Eyes broke down the case for an improved app ratings system that equips parents with vital information about the technology their kids are interacting with—information that currently isn’t required by law.

Haley Halverson, Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach at NCOSE, addressed the reality of the systems behind currently popular social media mediums like Instagram and Snapchat and how their platforms include features and vulnerabilities that leave children at risk of being easily targeted and groomed by predators.

Rob Spectre, founder of ChildSafe.ai, underscored the pitfalls and dangers that other presenters had brought forward and then discussed opportunities for using technology to actually protect children online rather than leave them exposed to online exploitation the way many technologies and tech companies currently do.

Haley Halverson speaks at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation's national symposium on online child safety
Haley Halverson speaks at NCOSE’s national symposium on “Protecting Children from Online Exploitation”

Social media is removing previous barriers to grooming victims for child abusers, sex traffickers, pimps, and even sex buyers themselves because apps make minors’ accounts easily discoverable and accessible. This is leaving countless adolescents vulnerable and exploited, in some cases even by strangers contacting and grooming them when their so-called privacy/safety settings were turned on,” said Haley Halverson.

“In order to dismantle the current predator’s paradise online, we need age-based default safety settings on social media platforms and other apps;” continued Halverson. “These would include features like automatically disabling direct messages from strangers for accounts of minors, automatically disabling geo-tagging, filtering out pornography, and better algorithms to remove sexually graphic or sexualizing comments on minors’ photos or videos. We also need policymakers to make it clear that 13 is not the digital age of adulthood after which mega-corporations suddenly have no responsibility to protect them as minors.

As all of our subject matter experts discussed with chilling clarity, children today are facing unprecedented risk of experiencing sexual harm, abuse, and exploitation in online environments. Unfortunately, amidst our expanding digital landscape, online child safety is de-prioritized at almost every turn and children grow increasingly vulnerable with nearly every technological advance.

Panel members at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation's symposium about online child safety
Chris McKenna of Protect Young Eyes, Christy Kane PH.D. of Totumlink, and digital policy and cyber security expert Stacie Hoffmann talk before the symposium

These risks and harms have reached an industrial scale because of factors such as Internet-connected devices, social media apps which lack age-appropriate settings, the insidious influence of hardcore pornography, antiquated laws that are grossly inadequate in the face of modern technological advances, as well as an unregulated technology sector that has virtually no criminal or civil liability for its role in facilitating sexual abuse and exploitation.

This reality must change and is why the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has developed a comprehensive set of legislative and policy recommendations entitled The Freedom from Sexploitation Agenda. We ask that you carefully review this document and join with us in working to accomplish this ambitious but achievable set of goals.

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Jake Roberson

Director of Communications

As director of communications and being in charge of creative and digital strategy, Jake’s work with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation is to expose and subvert the complex web of sexual exploitation’s interconnectivity by leveraging digital mediums as a means for developing relevant tactics to reach, engage, convert, develop, and activate new allies for the fight to end sexual exploitation in all its forms.

Prior to his work with NCOSE, Jake spent five years running social media strategy for a large international nonprofit where he led content and marketing efforts that generated over $22 million in ROI from earned media value in the social media space, ideated creative campaign concepts that raised over $6 million in donations, brought in six figures worth of donation revenue from Facebook alone during his last three fiscal quarters there, and turned social media into one of the organization’s top three most-used resources.

When his work-life balance is well-balanced, Jake spends his time with his wife and four children attempting to convince them to enjoy his favorite hobbies (sports, pop culture, and podcasting) in the few spare moments that aren’t filled with tending to their dreams, passions, and fights over who established possession over the toy first.

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