Child Protection

Professor Corinne May-Chahal's  work on child protection projects is an innovative blend of disciplines, with collaborations between social scientists, software developers and law enforcement agencies. 

Her work focuses on child empowerment, aiming to give children a voice 'to be heard in ways they want to be and to be responded to in ways that help them.' Corinne has been researching child protection for over twenty years, her PhD thesis, 'an ethnographic study of the disclosure of child sexual abuse', marks the beginning of these research interests. Corinne states '[Through my PhD work] I realised that the child's perspective and voice was very difficult for professionals to hear and respond to', which is something she has sought to change through her work.

Corinne's current research (explained in her own words) looks at children's identities in a way which incorporates both their online and offline selves, researching how these are not exclusive entities, but interlinking parts of the self; and utilising theories surrounding cyborgs and childhood. We live in a digital age, and children are surfing the web before they can fully recognise any risks and dangers of, for example, chat rooms and social networking sites (and indeed, many adults are not aware of these risks and dangers either). Crucially, Corinne emphasises how the framing of abuse in an online environment constructs children as victims; through notions of 'victimhood' (Wattam, 1992; Parton, Thorpe, Wattam, 1996) and helplessness – a common trope of child internet safety. (Some examples of the (adult) predator, (child) prey opposition can be found later in this article, to demonstrate this idea.)

While Corinne's work is about increasing children's safety and protecting them against key online threats like child abuse media and child grooming, her research aims to provide children with the agency to protect themselves, an opportunity to take control of their own safety. Children are no longer simply victims, and can be empowered to begin protecting themselves, and hopefully also ask adults for support and advice too – Corinne's project is not a case of children becoming completely self-reliant, but a means of opening communication, bringing these issues to the forefront, and increasing safety through being able to talk about these online dangers, and talk to somebody if they feel uncomfortable or at risk in any way.

Corinne highlights the importance of her work through sharing some troubling facts: 'Very few children report harm caused to them and child maltreatment often goes undetected'. Corinne's research really excels in opening up opportunities for children to speak out should they feel at risk of harm, or have been harmed previously, through a child-friendly and invitingly modern approach to providing help and information. Culture is increasingly more reliant upon the digital, and Corinne's research embraces this, making the most of the technology available today in order to 'make children who experience significant harm or injury to be safer'. Use of these new technologies in this way not only provides children and adults with opportunities to become more technologically savvy through increasing awareness of the dangers present on the internet, but also provides a necessary update for the systems currently in place to protect children. In a world which is constantly developing, and inevitably becoming more and more reliant on new technologies, Corinne's work is similarly contemporary, and more in line with children's experiences of the world today, a digital world, with digital problems demanding digital solutions (May-Chahal et al, 2012).

Online child protection research has been funded by the EPSRC/ESRC on ISIS and EU funded iCOP projects, developing ethics-centred frameworks to monitor social networks and file sharing networks for the purpose of online child protection, supporting law enforcement agencies. This work aims to minimise risks of child exploitation, namely adults grooming children (adults wishing to 'sexually exploit children in chat rooms and web-based communities can use such forums to groom children and plan paedophilia-related activities'), and the distribution and sharing of child abuse media ('File-sharing systems are used to share child abuse media and hundreds of searches for child abuse media occur each second').


So, how did they set about achieving this? The projects developed innovative methods of digital language and image analysis through the creation and use of original software tools. (You can hear Corinne explain more about this project on podsocs, a site with various podcasts, sponsored by Griffith University, Australia.) Corinne and team gathered data from schools in the North-West of England, researching and identifying ways children distinguished the ages and gender of the people they spoke to online through Turing type experiments, and misuse case scenarios were applied with focus groups of law enforcement personnel. The ties with law enforcement – both from the UK and Europe – on this project helped to ensure ethical practice, relevance and applicability of the data and the work's progression.

The team created a free and downloadable app, ChildDefence, which enables children to identify the age and gender of those they are speaking to online. This wasn't, however, the original goal. The ISIS project, the first of the two projects surrounding this topic Corinne was a part of, wanted to develop tools to track paedophiles online to aid law enforcement agencies. They focused on natural language analysis of children’s chat in order to do this, hoping to identify age through language use. The research surrounding this was in-depth, requiring a firm understanding of how children use chat online; information was gathered in whole school experiments, getting children to chat online and to estimate the age and gender of the person they were speaking to. After the work in the schools, the children were debriefed, and Corinne and her team’s aims were made clear to the participants – the goal of training software tools for law enforcement to increase their safety online. The children actually requested the tools to be able to do this for themselves, which was considered a fantastic idea, and the app was created by ISIS Forensics. Corinne is excited by the possibilities of collaboration, and states: ‘This is a good example of what the partnership enables us to do; individually we would never have thought of the app – it was a product of the collaboration not just between us but with the research participants too.’ With more and more publicity surrounding internet safety, Corinne’s work is a very contemporary, current, and critical concern, and these solutions match not just the problem, but are also modern and inviting resolutions for the times we live in, and the children these solutions aim to defend.

Piece by Amy Calvert