Meet a digital groundbreaker: DeafKidz International

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End Violence has invested $10 million more to keep children #SafeOnline. Through our latest funding round, we are welcoming 14 new projects into our Safe Online portfolio – all of which are using cutting-edge technology to fight online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

Our Digital Groundbreaker series was created to introduce the End Violence community to the grantees spearheading these new projects. Each week, we are profiling a different grantee from our newest funding round, each of which were given $450,000-$750,000 to push a solution to online violence forward.

Today, we are focusing on DeafKidz International, which will use End Violence funding to develop an interactive digital game to help deaf children stay safe online. End Violence spoke with Steve Crump, the Founder and Chair of DeafKidz International, to learn more about their priorities, programme, and insights around online child exploitation and abuse.

What do you feel is the biggest threat to children online?

Deafness is the third largest disability globally and the least resourced. Deaf children are at least three times more likely to be abused and exploited. Factors such as lack of information in their first language, such as sign language, lower literacy levels and communication barriers, contribute to deaf children’s higher risk and vulnerability to abuse.

At the same time, evidence indicates that children are accessing the internet at increasingly younger ages. This includes deaf children, who may not fully understand an online threat or be equipped to protect themselves against online abuse. Deaf children are often left out of online safety education and miss out on informal learning, such as chatting with peers or overhearing information about online safety. Deaf children are also more at risk of cyberbullying, as they may misinterpret online posts or miss subtle cues of online behaviour. Exposure to online abuse can have a profound impact on the lives of deaf children as they grow older, affecting their mental health and leading to poor social and emotional development.

Deaf children critically need tailored and accessible early information about being safe online including safety tips and ways to identify warning signs and take simple steps if under threat.

How will the new funding from End Violence enable you to do tackle that threat? What are the key expected results of your project?

DeafKidz Defenders is an early intervention tool in the form of accessible digital educational games. It aims to be interactive and fun while educating young deaf children aged 6–10 about the dangers of online abuse and practical steps to stay safe, thus reducing their risk of – and vulnerability to – online abuse and exploitation.

The funding from End Violence will enable us to develop and pilot seven digital educational games, covering important topics of online sexual exploitation and abuse: Consent; Keeping Secrets; Private Body Parts; Trusted Adults; Indecent Images & Live Streaming; Cyber Bullying and Online Grooming.

Utilising a visual medium to appeal specifically to deaf children, the games incorporate strong deaf characters with clear expressions, gestures, actions and minimal text supported with sign language translation videos. These digital educational games will promote learning among young deaf children, increasing their knowledge of online safety skills, rights and reporting mechanisms.

It will improve their confidence and resilience, vitally enabling deaf children to self-advocate and self-protect, reducing risk and improving their mental well-being. With End Violence’s support and funding, we can fully realise our ambition to impact the lives of deaf children worldwide, keeping them safe online from abuse and exploitation.

What was your organisation’s most successful experience of your work against online violence in the past?

There are currently no digital safeguarding and protection provisions specifically aimed at deaf children of this age worldwide. Our consultations with deaf children in South Africa, Jamaica, and the United Kingdom showed that 92 per cent of children were not aware of any learning resources on abuse and exploitation.

In 2019, we created a digital prototype mini game focusing on consent, where children learned that they can say no when put into a situation where they do not feel comfortable. Our evaluation found nearly 100 per cent of deaf children not only understood the message from playing the game but were prompted to discuss the content of the game – which revolved around safety issues and potential remedial actions – with their parents or siblings.

As a result of the game, parents found their children acting out their ‘stop’ power of consent, clear evidence that the key messages were not only being retained but also recalled. Learning from the game continued after the game-play session, with deaf children reporting confidence about what to do in a situation where they were uncomfortable about being asked to hug or touch. Our findings demonstrate that if leveraged in the right way, digital games can be a powerful tool to educate deaf children on online safety and protection.

What motivates you, as an individual, to work on this subject?

As a profoundly deaf man, it horrifies me that deaf children are exposed to endemic sexual abuse and exploitation and that they are especially at risk online. If I can ensure that just one deaf child or young person is spared the agony of such abuse, then I will have done something right.

But it’s also more than that.

The global child protection community has failed to address the protection needs of deaf children and young people. Working in partnership with the End Violence Fund and through this DeafKidz Defenders initiative, we can at last begin to address this issue and empower deaf children to reduce their risk and vulnerability to online abuse.

If you had a superpower to do one thing to end online sexual exploitation and abuse, what would it be?

I would ensure the perpetrators of online sexual abuse against all children – and particularly deaf children – know that they will be traced and that they will face prosecution, and that tech companies work closely with the End Violence Partnership and agencies such as DeafKidz International to track and trace offenders.

It is an outrage that perpetrators who target deaf children because they lack the communication skills, language and vocabulary to say no to abuse and, as a result, believe they will escape detection. There should be no safe quarter for those who target this especially vulnerable group of children.