As Sydney’s lockdown continues, child protection advocates fear a significant rise in cases of online child sexual exploitation similar to that seen during Melbourne’s second wave. DiGii Social is aiming to educate students on how to be safe online. (Image source: Rob van der Voort via LetterSchool)

By Alexandra Bull | @ally_bull19

As Australian states are continually plunged into lockdown due to the ever changing COVID-19 crisis, child protection advocates fear a significant rise in cases of online child sexual exploitation.

Reports made by members of the public to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) increased by 122 per cent as the nation went into coronavirus lockdowns through April, May and June in 2020.

Speaking with the ABC last year, the coordinator of AFP forensics in NSW, Nathan Green, said people were spending more time online, meaning offenders were spending more time with potential victims, during the nationwide lockdown.

To address online risks, an Australian-made social media network, DiGii Social, has been trialled in Western Australian schools and utilises innovative technology designed to educate children on the dangers of posting inappropriate content online.

The program was officially launched earlier this year and has already been trialled in 35 schools across four countries including schools in Western Australia and Queensland.

Created by child therapist Claire Orange from Leeming in Western Australia, DiGii Social utilises artificial intelligence technology to flag potentially inappropriate content. This then issues a “strike” to the child, displaying a message outlining the issue detected.

The program’s implementation is driven by it’s need, and motivated by the loss of a 14-year-old boy by suicide who was found to have received 2500 abusive messages sent over a 48-hour online “campaign”.

Claire and the team behind the social media platform are committed to its success, urging parents to be vigilant in this time of heightened risk.

The eSafety Commissioner has found that 33 per cent of Australian young people have received unwanted contact whilst using social media, with 50 per cent of females having to block or unfriend other accounts.

With the use of challenges and tutorials, the app aims to teach young students how to navigate the internet safely, while also looking out for their peers.

Manager of the Department for Child Protection office in South Australia, Julie Powell, says the app will hopefully be a really valuable tool for school students.

“I think that schools have access a range of evidence-based responses to internet security and they are likely to have access to that information, so this app can make it accessible for all children at schools, rather than relying on the parents at home to educate them,” Julie said.

Julie said not all parents will have the same amount of time, knowledge, or motivation to educate their children on the importance of online safety.

“The students are also learning with their peers, so you hope that if anyone is engaging in risky behaviour online that there may be some support from their peers also,” Julie said.

“I think it is really important for schools and parents/carers to work together to manage the risks of cyber safety.”

The app costs $25 dollars per student and the roll out of DiGii Social amongst Year Five and Year Six students has been estimated to cost less than $2,000 per school, which is a small price to pay to educate students on the importance of internet safety.

DiGii Social is only accessible via school’s networks, with no identifiable information stored on the system. You can read more about DiGii Social on their website here.