Surge in online sexual abuse of young children

Fiona Simpson
Thursday, January 13, 2022

Online sexual abuse of young children aged between seven and 10 increased three-fold last year, new research shows.

Children as young as seven are being targeted by online groomers. Picture: Adobe Stock
Children as young as seven are being targeted by online groomers. Picture: Adobe Stock

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has warned that younger children are being targeted by online groomers “on an industrial scale”.

Research by the IWF shows that in 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisation took action against 252,000 URLs which 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, according to the research.

Latest figures reveal an alarming increase in “self-generated” sexual imagery of young children.

“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,” according to the IWF.

Last year, self-generated sexual imagery of children aged seven to 10 increased three-fold with 27,000 instances recorded compared with 8,000 in 2020.

Children aged 11 to 13 remain the most targeted by groomers over self-generated content. 

Last year, 147,900 reports contained self-generated material involving children aged between 11 and 13 compared with 55,300 reports which included self-generated material involving children in this age group in 2020.

Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said so-called “self-generated material” has increased as more young 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.

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 marketplace for this material. 

“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.”

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