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New research aims to keep online predators at bay

09:30am August 02 2022

Children face a growing threat from predators and scammers in their activities online. (Getty

Dr Lesley-Anne Ey wants to get inside the mind of an online predator.

It’s an unpleasant, but vital task to help protect children who face an ever-growing risk of exploitation in their activities on social media and gaming platforms. 

Dr Ey and Dr Enza Tudini are leading a University of South Australia study into the strategies used by perpetrators to gain the trust of young people. Their research will use conversation analysis techniques to identify recurrent language and interactional behaviours, with a specific focus on opening chat sequences, with a view to help inform child protection education programs and resources nationwide.

“Kids have access to technology, the internet and mobile phones from a very early age these days, and it’s difficult for parents to monitor their activity. It’s a playground really, for predators to be able to access these kids,” Dr Ey tells Westpac Wire

She says predators will work to build up a rapport with children by sharing generally fake personal information about themselves, such as what school they go to, what sports they play and the name of their team. They also work hard at keeping up to date with kids’ latest trends so they can talk about these with confidence. Children often unknowingly provide information that predators can use to manipulate them. 

Secrecy is also a common thread in these interactions, Dr Ey says. The predator will quickly look to take a conversation onto platforms that support privacy, such as Instagram or Snapchat, so they’re harder to trace. They’ll also seek every opportunity to detach the child from caring, protective adults. As trust is built they may encourage the child to share images, starting with innocent photos, and gradually building up to ask for more sexualised pictures. 

“They tend to target kids that are vulnerable, who are looking for acceptance and kindness. They might be lonely, they might be being bullied. Predators can exploit that by showing empathy for their situation,” she says, adding “it is important to note though, that not all perpetrators are strangers and not all kids that are targeted are lonely or sad - any child can be at risk if not educated.”

Ey and Tudini’s work  is being backed by a $150,000 grant from Westpac under its Safer Children, Safer Communities program - one of 26 organisations announced in 2021 to receive $9.2 million in funding from the bank over the next three years. 

“Many of these grants will help organisations, researchers and our strategic partners play a crucial role in providing targeted online safety education, programs and support for those children and families who need it the most,” says program head Kavitha Suthanthiraraj. Safer Children, Safer Communities backs the work of a broad range of institutions including the Australian Childhood Foundation and Odyssey House Victoria. 

Westpac is also the first Australian bank to publish a Child Safeguarding Position Statement (PDF 484KB), which outlines its responsibility to promote the financial safety of young people who access the bank’s products and services. 

Dr Lesley-Anne Ey's work at the University of South Australia examines the conversational techniques deployed by online predators. (Supplied)

The government is also stepping up efforts to raise awareness of the risks children face online and inform parents on how they can better protect them. The eSafety Commissioner website has a dedicated section for kids, with simple messaging which helps them understand the red flags to watch out for when interacting with people online, while the Australian Cyber Security Centre’s regular “Act Now, Stay Secure” campaign in July spotlighted a five-point plan to help keep kids safe on all their devices.

“We’re seeing an increase in the threat environment, in particular from adversaries trying to gain access to individual’s devices through things such as social media platforms,” says Jess Hunter, First Assistant Director-General for Cyber Security Resilience at the ACSC.

“Children are particularly vulnerable because of their extensive use of technology – whether they’re gaming or posting online for instance those are all environments where cyber criminals are trying to exploit those children and obtain some of their data.” 

The five steps recommended by the ACSC are as follows:

1. Update your device regularly – These updates include protection from viruses and other kinds of malicious code. Update your device when prompted, do not delay your updates till later.  

2. Protect your accounts with extra login security steps – always activate all the additional shields around your account, such as pin, or faceIDs in addition to passphrases.

3. Back up your data – so if you do get hacked you can still retrieve your school work and other important files. It’s like saving your progress in a game on a regular basis so you can go back later.

4. Use a funky passphrase – three or four random words are more secure than a single password. Use your imagination, for example: “Space Dog Eats Chips”

5. Recognise and report scams – to the ACCC’s Scamwatch or the Australian Cyber Security Hotline on 1300 Cyber1 (1300 292 371)

Hunter says younger people are particularly vulnerable to phishing-type scams – where an unsolicited message invites the recipient to click on a link, which takes them to a website or drops malware that gives the perpetrator direct access to their device. Harvesting of personal information is also rife, where kids are tempted click on something online which takes them to an unsecure website where they can be hacked. 

The Australian Cyber Security Centre’s Jess Hunter. (Supplied)

The ACSC’s campaign looks to engage children through puzzles, including word hunts and mazes, and colouring exercises – while also recognising that the message may have greater cut-through with younger people. “Children are probably more digitally savvy than parents these days,” Hunter says, “they’re usually the ones exploring and implementing the right security settings on devices.” She also recommends reviewing your permissions to ensure you are allowing an app to access only the minimum information from your phone, computer or device.”

Promoting cyber security as a career path is another way to engage young people on the issue, Hunter adds. In particular, the ACSC has a range of networking and mentoring programs specifically aimed at female students. Westpac is also helping to get more young people interested in cyber security through its partnership with the educational charity Grok Academy, which runs the Schools Cyber Security Challenges

While these programs will help to build up our defences against cyber criminals and online predators over the longer term, Dr Ey says it’s important to have honest conversations with children from an early age about the risks they face. Ultimately, we can’t expect social media platforms to be able to protect children, while predators can often find ways around parental control software, she says. 

“We tell kids not to speak to strangers online, not to share personal information, but how are you going to make friends and communicate online if you never share anything about yourself? So it’s more about helping them understand that even the smallest bit of information you share can be used in the wrong way and put you at risk. “ 

James Thornhill was appointed as editor of Westpac Wire in May 2022. Prior to joining the bank, he was a business and financial journalist with more than two decades of experience with international newswires. Most recently, he was a resources correspondent for Bloomberg, covering the mining and energy sectors, and previously reported on a broad range of topics from economics and politics to currency and bond markets. Originally from the UK, he’s had stints working in London, New York and Singapore, but is now happily settled in Sydney.

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