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COVID lockdowns saw a record rise in online child sexual abuse reports, says watchdog

Child experts believe children being online more often during the COVID pandemic has made them more vulnerable to exploitation.
Child experts believe children being online more often during the COVID pandemic has made them more vulnerable to exploitation.   -   Copyright  Canva
By Ian Smith

Last year was the worst year on record for child sexual abuse online, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has said, as pandemic-related lockdowns saw younger and younger children being targeted “on an industrial scale” by internet groomers.

The UK-based charity took action against 252,000 URLs in 2021 which it confirmed contained images or videos of children being raped and suffering sexual abuse.

In total, IWF analysts investigated 361,000 reports of suspected criminal material last year, including tip offs from the public.

This is more than they dealt with in the entire first 15 years of the charity’s existence when they assessed 335,558 reports from 1996 to 2011.

The IWF also reported a threefold increase in content showing the abuse of children aged between seven and 10 years old.

Effect of the COVID pandemic

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.

Children are being targeted, approached, groomed and abused by criminals on an industrial scale,” said Susie Hargreaves, Chief Executive of the IWF.

“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”.

Self-generated child sexual abuse content that was reported to the IWF rose by 168 per cent in 2021 to 182,000 reports.

This 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.

How to protect children against online sexual abuse

“Devices can be an open door into your home, and children can be especially vulnerable to being drawn into these predators’ traps,'' Hargreaves said.

“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”.

The IWF encourages parents to talk to their children about online sexual abuse, agree ground rules about using technology, learn about the platforms your children are using and know how to use tools and settings that can help keep your child safe online.