The Countess of Wessex has warned that the world is failing to protect children from "truly horrific abuse" online, as the Covid-19 lockdown made them “ever-more reliant” on virtual communication.
The Countess said the "distressing reality" of coronavirus lockdown left children exposed to "new and very dangerous threats".
Tech companies must not leave child safety as an 'afterthought'
Speaking in her role of patron of the NSPCC, at the European Parliament Intergroup on Children's Rights in Brussels, she urged technology companies to put children at the forefront of their innovation, instead of leaving safety as an "afterthought".
Of the increased harm suffered by young people online, she said: "I am profoundly sorry to say that we are simply not protecting or preparing our children to use this transnational and virtual space."
The Countess delivered the keynote speech at the conference focusing on tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse.
New analysis from the NSPCC found more than 100,000 child abuse image crimes recorded by the police in the last five years, with a 70 per cent increase in offences between 2017 and 2021.
The Countess said the “distressing reality is that as Covid-19 made us ever-more reliant on virtual means to communicate", it also gave "greater rise” to online abuse in ever younger children.
“During lockdowns, at home, in their bedrooms, or when going online to stay connected with family and friends, children were exposed to horrendous, but preventable harm," she said.
When designing products 'risks to children' must be considered
She called on policy-makers and legislators to strike the right balance in “balance in upholding the rights of internet users while protecting the rights of children”, bearing in mind the “very real human suffering that presently exists across all our countries”.
Urging tech firms to be responsible in developing their platforms, the Countess - who has two teenage children - said: “We owe it to our children that they can freely and safely use online services that are fundamentally safe-by-design and we should expect that when companies are designing their products, or roll out new features, they must consider the risks to our children.
“Let us encourage innovation to identify child abuse on messaging services. Let us tackle the growing problem of online grooming with novel technologies.
“Firms should take every reasonable step to “design out” harm and detect and report abuse and children should be front of mind during this process, and never an afterthought.”