Heightened by COVID-19, scale of online child sexual exploitation and abuse is increasing beyond capacity to respond
New report from WeProtect Global Alliance calls for a stronger global response to create safe online environments for children
- 1 in 3 respondents (34%) to global Economist Impact survey were asked to do something sexually explicit online they were uncomfortable with during childhood
- The US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children processes on average 60,000 reports of child sexual abuse online every day
- Minorities are more at risk, with 65% of LGBQ+ and 58% of ethnic minority survey respondents having experienced online sexual harm during childhoodi
- Despite the concerning findings, there is hope that advances in online safety technology and increased government engagement can help to turn the tide on the global crisis.
WeProtect Global Alliance, a global movement of more than 200 governments, private sector companies and civil society organisations to transform the global response to child sexual exploitation and abuse online, has today published its 2021 Global Threat Assessment. According to this year’s study, the scale of child sexual exploitation and abuse online is increasing at such a rapid rate that a step change is urgently required to create safe online environments for children.
Heightened by COVID-19, online sexual abuse reaches record levels
In the last two years the reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse online has reached its highest ever levels, with the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) processing a staggering 60,000 reports of online child sexual abuse every day. Today, more than 3 million user accounts are registered across 10 of the most harmful child sexual abuse sites on the dark web, and in May 2021, Europol took down a single child abuse site on the dark web, which had over 400,000 registered users.
The COVID-19 pandemic is undeniably contributing to the spike in reported incidents. However, trends show an increased complexity of cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse online. The Internet Watch Foundation observed a 77% increase in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material from 2019 to 2020. Further, the use of hidden services to distribute child sexual abuse material has also increased, up by 155% from 2019 to 2020.
Iain Drennan, Executive Director of WeProtect Global Alliance, says: “The internet has become central to children’s lives across the world, even more so because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, we have observed an alarmingly steep increase in the scale and complexity of child sexual abuse online. This report should act as a wake-up call to us all; together we must step up the global response and create a safer digital world for all children.”
Online sexual abuse is a global issue that demands global response
The scale and complexity of child sexual exploitation and abuse is increasing and is outstripping the global capacity to respond. Today, prevention needs to be prioritised. While a strong law enforcement and judicial response is essential, a truly sustainable strategy must include active prevention of abuse. There is a need to ensure the creation of safe online environments where children can thrive. There is hope that advances in online safety technology and increased government engagement can help to turn the tide on the global crisis. To tackle this complex, global issue, everyone with a role to protect children online needs to work together to dramatically improve the response.
WeProtect Global Alliance’s Global Strategic Response (GSR) provides a global strategy to eliminate child sexual exploitation and abuse, calling for greater voluntary cooperation, transparency, and implementation of online safety technologies, greater regulation to make online environments safer for children, and an increased investment in law enforcement.
Minority groups of all types are more at risk
As part of the report, a global study of more than 5,000 young adults (aged 18 to20) was conducted by Economist Impact across 54 countries. It found that more than one in three respondents (34%) had been asked to do something sexually explicit online that they were uncomfortable with during their childhood.
The study’s findings make it clear that minority groups of all types are more at risk and are often less likely to have access to the protective mechanisms that could help keep them safe from online sexual harmsi. The survey demonstrated that girls and respondents who identified as transgender/non-binary, LGBQ+ and/or disabled were more likely to experience online sexual harms during childhood, and respondents who identified as racial or ethnic minorities were less likely to seek help:
- Overall, 57% of female and 48% of male respondents reported at least one online sexual harm
- 59% of respondents who identified as transgender/non-binary experienced an online sexual harm, compared to 47% of cisgender respondents
- 65% of respondents who identified as LGBQ+ experienced an online sexual harm, compared to 46% non-LGBQ+
- 57% of disabled respondents experienced an online sexual harm, compared to 48% of non-disabled respondents
- 39% of racial or ethnic minority respondents would delete or block a person sending them sexually explicit content, compared with 51% of non-minority respondents.
Perhaps surprisingly, respondents in high-income regions are most likely to experience such harms. 71% of these were in North America, 67% in Australasia and 65% in Western Europe.
In addition, a survey of technology companies was commissioned showing that while most firms are using tools to detect child sexual abuse material (i.e., 87% use image ‘hash-matching’), only 37% currently use tools to detect online grooming.
UK Government Safeguarding Minister Rachel Maclean said: “Child sexual abuse is a heinous crime that crosses borders, so it is vital that we work with our global allies to tackle it. Through international cooperation with law enforcement, civil society, and industry partners we can ensure that there is no safe space for sex offenders to operate. The latest Global Threat Assessment provides valuable insights that can help sharpen our international response, and I look forward to further co-operation with the We Protect Global Alliance to make sure that children are protected online.”
The 2021 Global Threat Assessment report details the scale and scope of the threat of child sexual exploitation online and aims to encourage action on the issue to reduce the risk to children and prevent abuse before it happens.
To download the full report please visit here https://bit.ly/GlobalThreatAssessment21