Online sexual abuse imagery of primary school children has soared by 1,000 per cent since lockdown

Imagery of primary school aged children sexually abusing themselves on camera has soared by more than 1,000 per cent since the UK went into lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, new data shows.

Jan 27, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Picture: IWF

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has warned that the full effects of lockdown are only now becoming apparent as younger children are groomed into sexual abuse online.

Since 2019, the IWF has seen a 1,058 per cent increase in the number of webpages showing sexual abuse images and videos of children aged seven to ten who have been recorded via an internet-connected device, often by a predator who has contacted them online.

The charity warns the pandemic saw thousands of children relying on the internet to learn, socialise and play – something which internet predators have exploited to coerce more children into sexual activities, and sometimes even including their friends or siblings, over internet-connected webcams and smartphones.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) says it is arresting around 900 offenders every month.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, chief executive of the IWF said: “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. We have all adjusted our lives to be more online than ever before, and that is not going to change.

“During the pandemic, the internet was a lifeline. But we are only now unpacking the full effects. What is clear to us is that younger children are being pulled into abusive situations by rapacious predators, often while they are in their own bedrooms.

“Their parents are often unaware there is this online backdoor into their homes which is leaving their children vulnerable. I fear this could be the tip of the iceberg.”

The “disturbing nature” of the grooming and coercion that children are subjected to online has been exposed by IWF analysts whose job it is to track down and view some of the very worst child sexual abuse material on the internet so it can be removed and blocked by IWF members.

Data published on Friday (January 27) by the IWF shows:

  • In 2022, 63,050 reports related to imagery which had been created of children aged seven to ten who, in many cases, had been groomed, coerced, or tricked into performing sexual acts on camera by an online predator – a 129 per cent increase on the 27,550 reports in this category in 2021;
  • The 2022 figures are a 1,058 per cent increase on the 5,443 such reports in 2019 before the outbreak of coronavirus;
  • Of the imagery made of seven to ten year olds in 2022, 14 per cent (8,930 URLs) contained Category A material – the most severe kind of material that can include penetrative sexual activity, images involving sexual activity with an animal, or sadism; and
  • 60,000 reports show imagery of seven to ten-year-old children who have been coerced into sexual acts by an online predator.

In one video seen by IWF analysts, a nine-year-old girl is asked to perform “super dirty” dares over a webcam, and is interrupted when a presumed family member, who is oblivious to the abuse taking place, calls up to ask her to run a bath for her (presumed) little brother.

In another video, two ten-year-old boys are in a bedroom speaking to the camera. They are being told what to do by the viewer who tells them to perform oral sex on each other and to masturbate for the camera in return for some type of reward.

Another video shows a ten-year-old girl masturbating in a bathroom while being encouraged by online “followers”. She is interrupted by her mother who storms in and confiscates the phone the abuse is being filmed on.

“The sexual abuse in these videos was recorded by sexual predators and shared widely on the open web, with children being revictimised every time footage of the abuse is re-shared,” said the IWF.

NPCC lead for child protection, Deputy Chief Constable Ian Critchley, said: “The fight against online child sexual abuse will never stop and these figures only serve to highlight the focus and priority that society must place on tackling these awful crimes. This type of offending devastates and destroys lives.

“Policing has made huge strides forward but there is still more to be done.

“We have invested significantly in our dedicated online child abuse teams, our digital forensics capabilities, and our undercover online teams. Our staff do this tough work because they care about keeping children safe, identifying offenders, and bringing them to court.

“On average we arrest 900 offenders, and safeguard 1,127 young people each month. Our message to offenders is this: we will find you.

“Whilst we are working hard to target offenders and safeguard children, we need everyone to play their part in having conversations with young people. Education is fundamental to ensuring their safety online.

“The Online Safety Bill offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the internet a safer place. It is imperative that the responsibility of safeguarding children online is placed with the companies who create spaces for them.

“We are committed to protecting all children and tracking down anyone who seeks to harm them.”

Ms Hargreaves added: “The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse recently concluded that children must be given a greater priority in public life, and I agree.

“We must now see national leadership from government at the highest possible levels that brings together health, education, and public protection to ensure that the failures identified by the inquiry never happen again.

“We must act now to ensure the growth we are seeing in this problem does not become endemic. This includes continuing to invest in programmes and prevention strategies that prevent children from becoming victims of child sexual abuse, protect the public from predators and the pursuit of bringing offenders to justice.”

She said 2022 had been a “record-breaking year” for the IWF, with analysts assessing more reports in total, and confirming more online child sexual abuse material than ever before.

Almost two thirds of the material analysts confirmed as child sexual abuse was of a child who had performed a sexual act in front of a camera-enabled device, often after having been coerced or groomed by a predator. The footage was then shared and spread widely on the open web.

The NPCC said the IWF helps it to bring offenders to justice, understand changes in offending behaviour, and support victims with the removal of this “abhorrent material”.

However, it said the full impact of the pandemic on online offending may take years to fully understand, “but we know that increased access to the internet, whilst a lifeline for many, allowed for exploitation by offenders”.

“Policing focuses heavily on prevention, working with committed partners like the IWF, law enforcement across the globe and working closely with the National Crime Agency,” the NPCC added.

“This report backs up what we are seeing, where younger children have increased access to social media platforms and apps.

“Police are also seeing increased sharing of self-generated images between young people as a part of what has sadly become normalised behaviour. But the consequences of this can be huge, an image shared on a platform can easily be shared and used against that young person to exploit , blackmail and sexually abuse them.

“We see abusers purporting to be young people and coercing and exploiting children to share indecent images of themselves.

“The internet can bring like-minded people together, which normalises the thoughts and behaviours of offenders. This can lead to escalating behaviour, and the sheer volume of child sexual abuse material available makes it much easier for offenders to develop their sexual interest in children.

“Offenders will share methods of committing offences, and share how to evade detection, which can make it more difficult for us to tackle their behaviour.”

The NPCC said it has seen many cases where this kind of encouragement and incitement has led to severe offending, including the “horrendous sexual abuse of young children”.

Offending is also increasing in complexity, it added, with offenders seeking out encrypted platforms, methods of anonymisation and use of the dark web.

“The internet has no borders, and we are having to fight to stay ahead of this offending, to find them, and prosecute them. At the same time, the increasing roll out of encryption poses a real threat, inhibiting our ability to identify offending and protect children,” the NPCC said.

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