Internet grooming of children has surged during lockdown, according to new research that found a threefold increase in online sexual abuse imagery featuring seven to 10-year-olds.
The Internet Watch Foundation reported its worst year on record for child sex abuse online in 2021 as it confirmed 252,000 URLs containing images or videos of children being sexually abused, compared with 153,000 in the previous year. The UK-based charity said it had seen a large increase in self-generated material – where children are manipulated into recording their own abuse before it is shared online – with the fastest growing increase in such material occurring among seven to 10-year-olds.
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Three-fold increase of abuse imagery of 7-10-year-olds as IWF detects more child sexual abuse material online than ever before [news release]
Last year was the worst year on record for child sexual abuse online as lockdowns saw younger and younger children being targeted “on an industrial scale” by internet groomers.
New figures show that, in 2021, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) took action against 252,000 URLs which it confirmed contained images or videos of children being raped and suffering sexual abuse.
In total last year, IWF analysts investigated 361,000 reports, including tip offs from the public, of suspected criminal material. This is more than they dealt with in the entire first 15 years of their existence when, from 1996 to 2011 they assessed 335,558 reports.
The IWF is warning parents that internet sex predators are targeting and grooming younger children, with a sharp rise in content showing the abuse of children aged between 7 and 10 years old.
Child safety experts say younger children have been relying more and more on the internet during the pandemic, and that spending longer online may be leaving them more vulnerable to communities of criminals who are looking to find and manipulate children into recording their own sexual abuse on camera. The footage is then shared among other criminals on the open internet.
Today (January 13), the UK Government launches a new campaign and website Stop Abuse Together (stopabusetogether.campaign.gov.uk) to help parents and carers spot the signs of sexual abuse and keep children safe.
- In 2021, the IWF investigated a record 361,000 reports. Of these, 252,000 URLs were confirmed to contain images or videos of child sexual abuse. Sometimes URLs contain thousands of images and videos.
- This compares to 2020, when the IWF investigated 299,600 reports. Of these reports, 153,350 were confirmed as containing images and/or videos of children being sexually abused. The 2021 figures show a 21% rise in the number of reports investigated, and a 64% increase in the number of actioned reports.
- In 2021, 182,000 reports included so-called self-generated material (see below). This is a 168% increase on 2020 when 68,000 reports involved self-generated material.
- Self-generated sexual imagery of children aged 7-10 years old has increased three-fold making it the fasted growing age group. In 2020 there were 8,000 instances. In 2021 there were 27,000 – a 235% increase.
- Self-generated content of children aged 11-13 remains the biggest age group for this kind of material. In 2021, 147,900 reports contained self-generated material involving children aged between 11 and 13. In 2020, 55,300 reports included self-generated material involved children in this age group. This is a 167% increase.
Self-generated child sexual abuse content is created using webcams, very often in the child’s own room, and then shared online.
In some cases, children are groomed, deceived or extorted into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves. There is no adult physically present in the room.
Some of these videos contain Category A material – the most severe level of abuse which includes self-penetrative sexual activity.
Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said so-called “self-generated material” involving 7-10 year olds has increased as more, and younger, children are spending more time on the internet as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said the internet is an important tool for good in children’s lives, but called for more help for parents to spot and understand the dangers.
Ms Hargreaves said: “Children are being targeted, approached, groomed and abused by criminals on an industrial scale. So often, this sexual abuse is happening in children’s bedrooms in family homes, with parents being wholly unaware of what is being done to their children by strangers with an internet connection.
“We then see how this content is shared repeatedly across many websites, creating a despicable market place for this material. This is what we tackle on a global scale in partnership with internet companies, law enforcement bodies, and other hotlines around the world.
“We have identified criminals that have exploited opportunities to reshare the same images again and again on a large scale by moving hosts and countries.
“Devices can be an open door into your home, and children can be especially vulnerable to being drawn into these predators’ traps. We know that if parents have one good conversation with their children it can make all the difference, and could be what stops a lifetime of hurt as a result of this grooming.
“Parents need to be supported in knowing how to broach the topic with their children, and to give them the confidence to call out inappropriate behaviour when they see it. We’re pleased to see the Government stepping in to help educate parents, and provide them with ways they can help protect children from this growing problem.”
Sarah Blight, National Crime Agency Deputy Director of the CSA Threat, said: “The IWF’s work to take down child sexual abuse material is a vital component in the fight against this problem.
“The rise in reports of abuse imagery to the IWF is concerning and demonstrates the importance of parents and carers having discussions with children about online dangers, which is why NCA-created campaigns such as #AskTheAwkward and Play Like Share are such valuable tools.”
The Government hopes its new campaign will help people learn to spot the signs and have regular conversations with their child which can help keep them safe and know when it’s right to reach out for more support.
- The campaign will educate parents on the signs to look out for and who to speak to if they feel that something may not be right.
- Key signs include children becoming more withdrawn, acting differently, or changes in mood and eating habits.
- Having regular talks about relationships, sex and consent with your child can help protect them from sexual abuse. It’s important to use open questions and actively listen, as well as continuing the conversations on a regular basis.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay said: “The internet is a vital resource for children to learn and socialise with their peers, but this shocking data shows the unacceptable risks that children can face online.
“Our National Cyber Strategy aims to make the UK the safest place to live and work online. Strengthening laws and working across Government, law enforcement and internet providers to fight malicious online activity.
“With the new Stop Abuse Together campaign, we will help empower millions of parents to spot the potential signs of child sexual abuse and take action to keep their children safe.
All children have a right to be safe from the abhorrent crime of sexual abuse, and we all have a role to play in keeping them safe. Let’s stop abuse together.”
Safeguarding Minister, Rachel Maclean said: “Keeping children safe is one of this Government’s highest priorities and we are committed to doing all we can to combat the increased identification of child sexual abuse online.
“I welcome and fully support this Government campaign, which provides vital advice to parents and carers on how to have appropriate conversations with children, spot the signs that a child could be being abused on or offline, and importantly where to go for further support if they have concerns. Let’s stop abuse together.”
Parents are encouraged to follow the TALK checklist to make sure children are kept safe.
- TALK to your child about online sexual abuse. Start the conversation – and listen to their concerns.
- AGREE ground rules about the way you use technology as a family.
- LEARN about the platforms and apps your child loves. Take an interest in their online life.
- KNOW how to use tools, apps and settings that can help to keep your child safe online.
Images and videos of online child sexual abuse can be reported anonymously at report.iwf.org.uk.
The public is given this advice when making a report:
- Do report images and videos of child sexual abuse to the IWF to be removed. Reports to the IWF can be made anonymously.
- Do provide the exact URL where child sexual abuse images are located.
- Don’t report other harmful content – you can find details of other agencies to report to on the IWF’s website.
- Do report to the police if you are concerned about a child’s welfare,
- Do report only once for each web address – or URL. Repeat reporting of the same URL isn’t needed and wastes analysts’ time.
- Do report non-photographic visual depictions of the sexual abuse of children, such as computer-generated images. Anything of this nature, which is also hosted in the UK, the IWF can get removed.