Child sexual exploitation and abuse online continues to escalate worldwide, with the volume of reported abuse material cases having increased by 87% since 2019.
In addition, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) is heightening the threats children face online, according to the WeProtect Global Alliance’s 2023 Global Threat Assessment.
The WeProtect Global Alliance, which compiled the assessment report, is a global movement of more than 200 members, comprising 98 governments, over 50 private companies that are mostly tech firms, and more than 60 civil society organisations and charities. Its mission is to transform the global response to child sexual exploitation and abuse online.
The assessment report outlines the scale and scope of child sexual exploitation and abuse online, as well as provides an overview of the global response to the issue.
According to the report, there was a 360% increase in “self-generated” sexual imagery of seven- to 10-year-olds from 2020 to 2022.
It highlights that conversations with children on social gaming platforms can escalate into high-risk grooming situations within 19 seconds, with an average grooming time of just 45 minutes.
The report found that since early 2023, cases of perpetrators using generative AI to create child sexual abuse material and exploit children have been increasing.
The report found that while less than 1% of child sexual abuse material files shared in a sample of offender communities are currently photorealistic CGI of child sexual abuse, the volume has increased consistently since August 2022.
It also notes that in a global first, Australia, last month, put in place measures that require big tech companies to take steps to ensure AI products cannot be used to generate deepfake images and video of child sexual abuse.
Iain Drennan, executive director of WeProtect Global Alliance, says: “Our latest report shows the scale of the threat children face online. Online-facilitated child sexual exploitation and abuse worldwide demands our attention and action right now.
“New technological capabilities further exacerbate existing risks, and the situation is no different in Africa. Children’s safety must be non-negotiable. To prevent more children from coming to harm, governments, online service providers, charities and companies must step up their efforts and work together to drive change and protect children.”
Juliet Ohahuru-Obiora, programme coordinator, ACSAI Nigeria, adds: “Children cannot consent, which is why we have ceased using the term ‘child pornography’ and now refer to it as ‘child sexual abuse material’.
“Reports on child sexual abuse material are increasing exponentially; we must ensure inclusivity to safeguard every child, irrespective of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability.
“Tech platforms must be held accountable in ensuring ‘safety by design’ that is inclusive for children to combat the emerging trends of online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Children must be actively involved in interventions designed for their well-being, thus helping them to identify and address gaps to ensure greater impact. Harmonising global legislation strengthens cross-border prosecution of online child sexual exploitation and abuse, leaving no safe haven for perpetrators.”
To turn the tide on current abuse trends, all stakeholders – including governments, online service providers, civil society organisations and responders – are urged to invest in public health approaches, centred on children’s rights and perspectives, implement globally-aligned legislation, as well as adopt a safety by design approach, according to the report.
Sheema Sen Gupta, UNICEF director of child protection and WeProtect Global Alliance policy board member, comments: “The swift advancement of technology is straining child protection and justice systems, which in many countries are already stretched thin.
“We urgently need to focus on large-scale prevention – this requires governments to invest in evidence-based interventions to protect children from sexual violence and for companies to adopt child-rights-by-design principles when developing digital products and services to prevent potential harm. We also need strong legislation to protect children from all forms of online child sexual exploitation, future-proofed against rapidly-evolving technologies.”