The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rise in Internet use among children in Albania, putting them at risk from online bullies and predators.
Thousands of children in Albania are at greater risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online during the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF and local experts warn.
The closure of the country in March last year due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, including a shift to online schooling, has led to an increase in the use of the Internet by children, some of them under the age of 13.
According to a 2020 UNICEF Albania study titled “A Click Away”, about 14 per cent of children interviewed reporting experiencing uncomfortable online situations, while one in four said they had been in contact at least once with someone they had never met face-to-face before.
The same study said that two in 10 children reported meeting in person someone they had previously only had contact with online, and one in 10 children reported having had at least one unwanted sexual experience via the internet.
A considerable number of those who had caused these experiences were persons known to the children.
UNICEF Albania told BIRN that, after the closure of schools and the introduction of social distancing measures, more than 500,000 children found themselves faced with a new online routine. Online platforms suddenly became the new norm.
“If before the pandemic 13-year-olds or older had the opportunity to gradually become acquainted with social media, communication applications or online platforms, the pandemic suddenly exposed even the youngest children to information technology,” the office told BIRN.
Growth in child pornography sites
According to another report, by the National Centre for Safe Internet and the Centre for the Rights of the Child in Albania, there has been an alarming rise in reports of child pornography sites on the Internet.
This report, titled ‘Internet Rapists: The Internet Industry in the Face of Child and Adolescent Protection in Albania’, is based on data obtained from the National Secure Internet Platform, National Helpline for ALO Children 116-111 and the National Centre for Secure Internet in Albania.
“The number of reported sites of child pornography has reached a record 6,273 pages, or 600 times more than a year ago,” the report states.
It said that “40 per cent of the cases of pornographic sites, videos or even images with the same content are with Albanian children, while over 60 per cent of the cases of pornography are with non-Albanian children”.
The 15-17 year-old age group is most affected by cyber incidents, it said.
Cybercrime experts at the Albanian State Police also told BIRN: “There has been a general increase in criminal offenses in the area of cybercrime.”
In August last year, UNICEF Albania published another study, “The lost cases”, noting that between 5,000 and 20,000 referrals are made annually by international partners such as Interpol, Europol and the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children to the cybercrime department of Albanian police regarding the possession, distribution, production and use of child sexual abuse materials in Albania.
But according to official data of the Ministry of Interior, between 2016 and 2018, only 12 cases were investigated under Article 117 of the Criminal Code, ‘pornography with minors’, and only one case was ended in conviction.