Studying online chats to protect kids from sex offenders

Monday, 06 December, 2021

Studying online chats to protect kids from sex offenders

New research from the University of South Australia (UniSA) aims to help protect children from potential paedophiles.

It investigates the language and behaviours that online predators use to gain unacquainted children’s trust during opening chat sequences.

Funded by Westpac Australia’s Safer Children, Safer Communities grants, the research team will work with the South Australian Police (SAPOL) to identify the typical and recurrent behaviour patterns used by offenders in both initial online contact and preliminary non-sexual interactions, using conversations with undercover police posing as children online.

UniSA researchers Dr Enza Tudini, and Dr Lesley-ann Ey said the findings will deliver new linguistic indicators to help better monitor, identify and apprehend suspects.

“Online child exploitation is an ever-increasing concern,” Dr Tudini said. “While previous studies have focused on establishing offender profiles based on case file information, this research will help identify how predators gain children’s trust in the very early stages of online interaction.

“For example, we may find that predators are using specific grooming language and behaviours to encourage children to move to ‘safer’ online spaces such as Snapchat, where their conversation leaves no record.

“By tracking and examining these online conversations, we will deliver empirical information that can inform child protection authorities and contribute to educate children and protective adults on this type of online abuse.”

Data from eSafety, Australia’s national independent regulator for online safety, shows that one in four children (aged 8–12 years) and one in two teenagers (aged 13–17 years) have talked to a stranger online, with about 25% of all young people having made friends with someone they met on the internet in the past year.

In 2020–21, eSafety recorded 14,494 child sexual abuse materials.

Detective Chief Inspector Richard Lambert, Officer in Charge of Special Crimes Investigation Section, said the research may help prevent online child abuse.

“Children are accessing the internet at a very young age, often unsupervised, and spend long hours using electronic devices to socialise on the internet,” said Detective Chief Inspector Lambert.

“SAPOL is supportive of this type of research, which may assist investigators to identify online groomers and intervene at the earliest opportunity and may assist in preventing some instances of online child abuse.”

Image credit: © Miles

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