The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) says Covid-19 lockdowns created a “new normal” for online grooming, with 97 per cent of the imagery of suffering sexual abuse it dealt with last year featuring female victims.

This is a marked increase on a decade ago when only 65 per cent of the images and videos it took action to remove included girls.

The IWF says the acceleration of people moving their lives online in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic has put children, particularly girls, at greater risk of exploitation by sexual abusers.

In total last year, IWF analysts investigated 361,062 reports, including tip-offs from the public, of suspected criminal material. This is more than it dealt with in the entire first 15 years of its existence when, from 1996 to 2011 it assessed 335,558 reports.

In 2021, the IWF took action to remove a record-breaking 252,194 webpages – 242,000 of which featured female victims – that contained images or videos of children being raped and/or suffering sexual abuse, or contained links to the imagery – equating to millions of individual images and videos.

Of these, the IWF said 182,281 URLs contained images or videos of ‘self-generated’ material – made by a child themselves on a webcam-enabled device. This is a 374 per cent increase on pre-pandemic levels when, in 2019, analysts took action to remove 38,424.

“Children have often been tricked, bullied or coerced into performing sexual acts by an adult sexual predator who has groomed them online. These images are then shared and distributed online among other sexual abusers,” said the IWF.

In its annual report published yesterday on April 26th 2022, the IWF – the UK non-profit responsible for finding and removing child sexual abuse from the internet – found that sexual abuse imagery of children aged 11-13 was most prevalent, accounting for almost seven in ten instances identified last year.

Six in ten reports included the sexual abuse of an 11-13-year-old girl who has been groomed, coerced or encouraged into sexual activities by someone who is not in the room with the girl and has accessed the child via a camera-and-internet-enabled device.

The report highlights that while just one per cent of the sexual abuse imagery shows boys, this accounts for 2,641 instances. In more than half of these cases (53 per cent) the boy was suffering category A sexual abuse, which is penetrative sexual activity, sexual activity with an animal or sadism.

By comparison, 17 per cent of the sexual abuse imagery of girls shows category A activities.

Europe remains a ‘global hub’ for the hosting of online child sexual abuse material, according to the annual report, with 72 per cent of abuse imagery being traced to a European country in 2021 (including Russia and Turkey). The Netherlands continues to host more abuse content than anywhere else in the world.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, chief executive of the IWF, said: “It’s concerning to see how not only are the reports of child sexual abuse imagery online greater than what we’ve seen before, there’s been an increasing trend by offenders online sharing sexual material of girls.

“The Online Safety Bill is a golden opportunity to improve online safety for everyone, particularly women and girls, who our data shows are facing a disproportionate amount of harm online.

“We need to ensure that children receive an excellent education to empower them to stay safer online, and that there are first class awareness raising initiatives in place among, in particular, parents and those with a caring responsibility for children.

“When you look at this over the past ten years it tells a story about the tastes and preferences of the people who are creating the market-place for this material.

“We need to be asking ourselves about how this relates to the violence we see against women and girls in our society, and the experiences that have been shared through Everyone’s Invited.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “The sexual abuse and exploitation of children online is a disgusting crime and I am determined to do all within my power to help stamp it out and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.

“This report from the IWF will help our law enforcement agencies understand the changing nature of online child abuse as the lines are increasingly blurred between children’s physical and digital lives.

“The Government’s Online Safety Bill will ensure that technology companies are held accountable for keeping children safe online and we will impose a powerful range of sanctions if they fail to do so.”

Ms Hargreaves said the coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdowns have created a “new normal” with sexual abusers exploiting people who have shifted their lives online.

She added: “The pandemic has continued to impact teenagers’ social lives, with many spending more time than ever online.

“Living online has become the new normal. Unfortunately, this means more children are at risk. Sexual abusers will target children – girls in particular – and manipulate them into performing sexual acts on camera.

“These images are then shared across the internet, with the devastating result of re-victimising the child every time these images are viewed.

“Sadly, we are seeing the targeting of girls accelerating. The latest figures are a stark reflection of the society we live in.”

Simon Bailey, chair of Anglia Ruskin University’s Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER), said: “Combined action from across society and industry is critical if we are to slow the exponential rise in cases of online child abuse.

“Regulation of the digital space, with the right measures introduced through the Online Safety Bill, is the only way to limit the ability to create and share these kinds of images.

“There are ways to stop this type of abuse, such as device-level blocking and moving away from the planned end-to-end encryption which will protect those responsible.

The major players in private industry who dominate the social media landscape therefore have a clear and compelling moral responsibility. They have ignored this responsibility for too long, putting profit before the safety of children with little if any regard to the damage they are causing.

“As long as they continue to be unaccountable, we must educate parents, guardians, and young people about online safety.

“We know that more and more of the images identified are those that have been self-generated, and by increasingly younger children. We must teach our children what this means and the risks they are exposing themselves to, whilst encouraging parents and guardians to talk about this openly and supportively.

“We should also remember that law enforcement in the UK leads the world in responding to this threat, but as more and more images are detected, the demands on police officers and staff having to deal with this continue to grow. Our own research is seeking to understand the effect viewing this kind of imagery every day is having on them.”

SOURCE Police Professional

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