Image credits: Mexico Business News / Andrea Villar
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Analysis

Young People Face Higher Online Risks Due to Pandemic

By Andrea Villar | Mon, 02/22/2021 - 05:00

The pandemic has pushed more young people to join social networks. Children and teenagers are spending an increasing amount of time online, growing the risk of being the target of a crime. Since the health crisis hit, children and teenagers have been exposed to an 80 percent increase in online crimes, revealed the Cybercrime Unit of Mexico City's Ministry of Citizen Security in early February. Cyberbullying, grooming (when someone builds a relationship, trust and an emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them), sexting (sending sexually explicit digital images, videos, text messages or emails) and information theft are among the risks young people face at an ever-increasing rate.

The consumption of child pornography increased by 73 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, reported the Scientific Directorate of the Mexican National Guard. The UN and the US Department of Homeland Security have confirmed that Mexico is the world's leading distributor of child pornography. “Eighty percent of such incidents are reported on Facebook and the reality is that there are not enough cybersecurity experts out there to manage the growing number and variety of risks that exist,” Juan Pablo Carsi, Co-Founder of information security consulting firm Capa8.

Due to the pandemic, 12 percent of children in Mexico have also engaged in watching adult content and 4 percent in sexting, according to Guardianes, a civil organization dedicated to preventing child abuse and mistreatment; Lexia Insights Solutions and Netquest. The report also highlights that 16 percent of teenagers in Mexico admit having made friends with strangers through social media. Furthermore, 50 percent said they have actually arranged to meet in person with someone they met online. “On their social media, 56 percent of people accept strangers as friends. Out of this percentage, 23 percent like to meet new people online and 8 percent also enjoy getting followers and likes from people they do not know who see their posts,” the report states.

Pedophile groups move freely online and have accelerated their activities since lockdowns began. According to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), between January and September 2020, 30,236 reports of online sexual requests involving children were registered. This represents an increase of 98.66 percent over the same period in 2019.

Back in June, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and 15 other tech companies announced the Project Protect to combat online child sexual abuse. The plan focuses on five key areas that include the development and use of cutting-edge technology; collaboration between tech companies, governments and civil society to create a comprehensive approach to tackle this issue and funding research through the End Violence Against Children Partnership. “Project Protect brings together the brightest minds from across the tech industry to tackle a grave issue that no one company can solve on its own: child exploitation and abuse. Facebook is proud to help lead this initiative that we hope will lead to real changes that keep children safe,” said in a statement Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO.

Despite the increase in cybercrime against young people in Mexico, the number of complaints and reports to authorities in 2020 was lower than in 2019, according to the country's cyber police. “At some point, parents neglect and let their children go online all day, which contributes to the growth of these incidents and their harmful effects, including suicide,” stated Sandra García, a police officer of the Cybercrime Unit. 

According to the Mexican Psychiatric Association, around 80,000 people worldwide commit suicide every year. In Mexico, since 2017, suicide has become the second leading cause of death nationally among people aged between 15 and 29. In 2020, 499 cases of suicide were recorded in Mexico City, a decrease of 4.8 percent against 2019, but an increase of 41 percent against 2017. Oscar Próspero, a professor and researcher at UNAM, told EFE that, drug consumption is one of the main reasons why young people commit suicide. “Anxiety and stress due to working conditions and the loss of jobs and income have caused, for example, a rise of 75 percent in the consumption of alcohol,” he pointed out.

To address this growing problem, the National Program for Suicide Prevention kicked off in October 2020. The Ministry of Health (SSA) and academic institutions like UNAM promote awareness of suicidal behavior in different sectors of the population. This measure, however, will not be sufficient without a proper budget. According to data from the Centre for Economic and Budgetary Research, in 2021 the budget allocated to mental health is 9.6 percent lower when compared to that of 2013.

A Booming Marketplace for Drugs

Before the pandemic, drugs, such as opioids, cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines, were mainly trafficked by land and sea. Now, the trend involves online sales and mail-order distribution, warns the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). During the first expert group meeting convened by the INCB back in June 2020, Second Vice President Ambassador David T. Johnson noted that the ever-growing internet sphere allows drug traffickers to easily market their products. Public-private partnerships with internet companies such as Facebook, Google and others in the private sector are key to combat the illegal sale of opioids online, emphasized panelists at the event. 

Consumption of alcohol and drugs such as crystal meth has increased among young Mexicans during the pandemic, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report highlights that alcohol consumption has been registered among minors between 10 and 12 years old, while an increase in the consumption of crystal meth has been reported among men and women between 14 and 18 years of age. 

In 2018, after the Washington Post published a story about people attempting to illicitly sell drugs on Instagram, Facebook shared the new guidelines it was implementing to prevent this. Block and filter terms associated with drug sales; flagging bad content; investigating profiles, pages, groups, hashtags and accounts associated with bad content and certification for addiction treatment services are among the actions Mark Zuckerberg's social network announced at the time. The tech giant also said it was developing new technology to identify when someone may be attempting to sell drugs. “We can now understand text that appears in images, which is important because bad actors share their contact information in images to evade detection,” the company said in a statement.

Andrea Villar Andrea Villar Journalist and Industry Analyst