As part of a BBC report, I recently dressed up as a 14 year old schoolgirl to see the dangers posed by live streaming apps. I tested apps such as Live.ly, Periscope and Omegle, which allow users to stream live and chat with the public. I can categorically say it was one of the most disturbing and eye-opening experiences of my life.
It was truly horrific. I would love to tell you that a 14 year old’s experience of online streaming is safe and fun. But what I found was the complete opposite – I was inundated with sexual comments and requests to engage in sexual conversations and acts on live video. I was sent images and videos of men self-gratifying and asking me to reciprocate. As a medical student, I am used to seeing shocking cases on a daily basis. But this was by far one of the most horrifying things I have ever encountered. During the live streams, I emphasised multiple times that I was 14 years old in an effort to make the predators rethink – this made the abuse even worse, with many predators visibly enjoying my vulnerability and innocence. What was even more disgusting was that for the duration of my live stream, often lasting for half an hour or so, there was no moderation or intervention from the site of any kind. There was no barring of explicit vocabulary, no live moderation of comments nor any age verification of any kind.
The report was broadcast on BBC News and received over 1.8 million views online. It made for uncomfortable viewing but was incredible for raising awareness about the scale of the issue. The public reaction was shock, anger and urgency to hold these streaming companies to account.
The scale of the problem
Live.ly has over 4.6 million active monthly users, many of whom are children and adolescents. This is a global problem – these apps are a vehicle for facilitating online sexual abuse to children around the world. The long-term effects on a child’s mental health are devastating, including depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and difficulty at school.
What needs to be done?
I was interviewed on BBC News at Five and took the opportunity to spell out exactly what needs to be done to tackle the problem:
- More stringent age verification measures and 24 hour live moderation are needed
- Safe accounts automatically offered to under 18’s need to be made available – with default privacy settings, proactive filtering of harmful content and mechanisms to guard against grooming
- Companies who fail to protect children need to be fined.
It is high time for online companies to come under robust scrutiny from an independent regulator, and to face prosecution when they fail to keep children safe. There is a long way to go in terms of changing legislation but my campaign, Every Child Safe, continues to lobby members of Parliament to prioritise the issue. ‘Guidance’ on keeping our children safe, offered to parents by charities such as the NSPCC, are useful but are not enough on their own to safeguard them. A top-down approach is needed with implementation of real change at a company level to ensure that the onus is not solely on parents to keep their children safe in an online world.
You can support this ongoing campaign and keep up to date with the latest action by liking my campaign page ‘Every Child Safe’ here:
Watch the online BBC report here: