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Experts combine forces to keep children safe online

Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus

Swansea University is spearheading the fight against online child sexual exploitation after securing major funding for an innovative new project focused on online child sexual grooming.

The two-year Project DRAGON-S (Developing Resistance Against Grooming Online – Spot and Shield) will see experts develop vital Linguistics and AI tools to help identify online grooming. This project is financially supported by the End Violence Fund, which has invested $44 million in 52 projects dedicated to preventing and ending online sexual abuse across the world.

The project will also relay specialist knowledge through a learning portal and chatbot to strengthen child safeguarding professionals’ abilities to shield children from online grooming.

Swansea University’s Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus is heading up the project together with Dr Adeline Paiement, from the University of Toulon. They will be working with project partners – including Welsh Government Hwb’s Digital Resilience in Education team, Tarian, the Regional Organised Crime Unit for southern Wales, and third sector organisations not only in Wales and the UK but also in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA.

Latest figures reveal that at any one time approximately 750,000 individuals are estimated to be looking to connect with children for sexual purposes. Child sexual abuse material reports are growing exponentially – of the 23.4 million reports of child sexual abuse material, 40 per cent occurred in 2017 alone.

Professor Lorenzo-Dus said: “Online groomers use language to ensnare victims.  They use communicative manipulation to gain and then betray children’s trust, exploiting their wonderful sociability, kind-heartedness and curiosity. This form of exploitation and abuse must be stopped.

“DRAGON-S will enable child safeguarding professionals to pinpoint offenders’ language tactics and enhance their prevention practice.”

This new project builds on Swansea’s expertise in developing integrated Linguistics – AI research solutions that is already helping to protect children from harm, on and offline.

It will also draw on the talents of early career researchers as well as academics from the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

Professor Lorenzo-Dus added: “This is a true interdisciplinary partnership. We are united by our passionate commitment to tackling online child sexual grooming through research innovation and collaboration.”

Project DRAGON-S has received more than $500,000 from the End Violence Fund, which supports projects and individuals across the world.

Swansea University Pro Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for research and innovation, Professor Helen Griffiths, said: “Project DRAGON-S epitomises three of our key research values at Swansea University – interdisciplinarity, societal impact and global reach.

“Professor Lorenzo-Dus and her team’s efforts will make an important contribution to protecting vulnerable children worldwide against online sexual grooming.”

Swansea University gratefully acknowledges financial support provided for this programme by the End Violence Fund.