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The Dark Side of the Web—A Risk for Children and Adolescents Challenged by Isolation during the Novel Coronavirus 2019 Pandemic

Ferrara P, Franceschini G, Corsello G, et al. The Dark Side of the Web-A Risk for Children and Adolescents Challenged by Isolation during the Novel Coronavirus 2019 Pandemic. J Pediatr. 2021;228:324-325.e2. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.10.008

 In response to the global novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, many countries around the world adopted social isolation measures to contain the spread of the virus. For children and adolescents, limitations in face-to-face activities and interactions with their traditional peer groups has been a frustrating experience. After disease containment measures, which included school closures, social distancing, and home quarantine, children and adolescents faced a prolonged state of physical isolation from their peers, teachers, extended family, and community networks that affects their emotional and behavioral health. Parents and pediatricians are reporting signs of mental distress in children of all ages within the context of the pandemic. In several cases, this unexpected social isolation has paradoxically improved the psychosocial state of fearful children, and the mental health of those who have been victims of bullying. School function improved with distance learning and socialization may have increased using virtual connections to create a larger social group.

However, children and adolescents who experience a prolonged state of physical isolation may look for alternative, somehow attractive or unconventional forms of socialization, available on the internet. Children may be exposed to the risks of unsupervised cyberspace exploration beyond the open web, which may lead them to areas that are usually not available to visitors. They may pass the gates of the “open” and “deep web” sections and enter into the dangerous “dark web” zones, which predominantly host unethical and criminal activities. In those shadowy corners of the worldwide web, there exist dangers ranging from identity theft and the drug trade to suicide chat rooms and child pornography.

This commentary, authored by European Paediatric Association/Union of National European Paediatric Societies and Associations members of the working group on social pediatrics, briefly discusses the features of the dark web and its implications for children and adolescents. Our aim is to raise awareness of pediatricians and families on the growing risk of child exploitation through the web at a time when vulnerable young people face home lockdowns with potential abusers intruding on their privacy.