New York: Child Abuse and Maltreatment/Neglect for Mandated Reporters (348)Page 9 of 16

8. Online and Virtual Child Abuse

Technology-facilitated abuse is defined as the misuse of digital systems such as smartphones or other internet-connected devices to harm an individual. The proliferation of these devices, exacerbated by the COVID19 pandemic, has increased the risks of technology-facilitated abuse for vulnerable members of society. These forms of abuse are on the rise, with perpetrators using digital technologies such as GPS Tags and device spyware tools to monitor and control another person (Straw and Tanczer, 2023).

Victims, including children and young adults, experience a range of abuses, including general harassment, digital surveillance using spyware and tracking devices, and sextortion (having intimate images or videos shared without their consent). GPS trackers have been a growing phenomenon in domestic violence cases, including reports of trackers being placed in children’s toys and strollers. The harm from this type of abuse is significant, causing anxiety and trauma, a heightened risk for future psychological symptoms, self-injury, and suicidal ideation (Straw and Tanczer, 2023).

Online sexual abuse is very common. It is often related to unwanted sexual approaches, especially by an adult who contacts children for sexual purposes. Even if an interaction is voluntary, many users report being persuaded or coerced into sexual activity. (Jonsson et al., 2019).

In a Swedish study of 14–15-year-old children, sexual approaches were experienced more often by girls than boys and were also more common among older adolescents and those defining themselves as gay, bisexual, or as being unsure about sexual orientation. The group most vulnerable to sexual approaches and grooming tend to consist of high-risk youths with a prior history of sexual abuse. Individuals who use chatrooms, communicate with people met online, engage in sexual behavior online, and who share personal information online also place themselves at risk (Jonsson et al., 2019).

Common online behaviors that can lead to abuse include sharing contact information, looking for someone to talk to about sex (or have sex with), sending nude pictures, and posting nude pictures on a community or internet site. Because of this, healthcare providers working with children and young adults should screen their patients for online behavior and online abuse (Jonsson et al., 2019).

In the United Kingdom, police are investigating a landmark case of an alleged rape in a virtual reality game after a teenage girl was “sexually attacked” by a group of strangers in the online metaverse. The girl, allegedly under the age of 16, is said to have been left traumatized after her avatar—her personalized digital character—was “sexually attacked” by a group of online strangers. The victim, wearing a headset, remained unharmed as there was no physical assault (Farrant, 2024).