Online child sexual harm reaches ‘unprecedented’ levels

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 21 Oct 2021

Children across the world face a sustained threat of online sexual abuse, and evidence suggests the scale of this abuse is increasing at an unprecedented rate.

So says Chloe Setter, head of policy at WeProtect Global Alliance, detailing one of the key findings in the 2021 Global Threat Assessment.

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, released this week, outlines the scale and scope of child sexual exploitation and abuse online, as well as an overview of the global response to the issue. It is based on research conducted over the past nine months.

Setter says the past two years have seen the highest reporting rate of child sexual exploitation and abuse online, with evidence indicating an increase in grooming; the production, viewing and sharing of sexual abuse material; and live streaming for payment.

She points to COVID-19 and “self-generated” sexual material as two contributory factors to the spike in online child sexual exploitation levels.

Self-generated sexual material, notes Setter, is when children create content themselves that can be exploited for sexual purposes, or shared without their consent.

The Internet Watch Foundation has observed a 77% increase in child self-generated sexual material from 2019 to 2020.

Despite already being high, the rate of abuse may be higher than what current reports suggest, according to Setter. “We know that available data is not globally representative. It is skewed towards global north countries, where detection reporting is generally higher.

“We also know the crime of child sexual abuse is under-reported, with only 2% of reports through the global tip line coming from children.”

“Even though some companies use detection tools to identify abuse online, not all of them do and not all of them deploy all the available tools that are out there.”

Worrying trends

Setter notes the threat assessment report also examined various trends and offender techniques that are fuelling exploitation and abuse of young people online.

Noted among these are the diversification of production methods; for example, capping – this involves the grooming and coercing of children into performing sexual acts that are captured on a web camera.

“Capping has been described by police as a problematic trend that is fuelling the production of new child sexual abuse material online.

“Secondly is the issue of child self-generated sexual material, which is becoming more common. We think it’s linked to the pandemic. This poses real challenges for policy-makers and police because cases can involve age-appropriate consenting older teenagers exploring their sexuality and relationships. At the same time, these can include images created by coercion, blackmail, grooming or shared non-consensually. It’s not always obvious to tell the intention behind the images when they’ve been identified.”

Setter continues: “Finally, the reinforcement of commercial drivers for abuse is also fuelling the complexity of the issue. For most individuals, we know that primary motivation of committing child sexual abuse is sexual gratification. With that said, evidence of the monetisation of content appears to be building in recent years.

“Perhaps most worrying is the recent trend in self-generation of sexual images in exchange for payment. A 2020 survey of global law enforcement found there had been an increase in this activity during the pandemic.”

As part of the global threat assessment, WeProtect also commissioned a separate study, which surveyed some 5 000 young adults (aged 18 to 20) across 54 countries. The study, conducted by Economist Impact, looked at childhood exposure to online sexual harm.

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 childhood.

The study also reveals online sexual harm remains a pervasive problem across the African continent.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents in Southern Africa and 37% of respondents in Central Africa said they had experienced at least one incident of online sexual harm.

Percentage of respondents affected by online sexual harm, per sub-region.
Percentage of respondents affected by online sexual harm, per sub-region.

According to WeProtect, there is some glimmer of hope to the current challenges, as child sexual exploitation and abuse is moving up the global agenda.

“More countries, companies and civil society organisations are involved in tackling this crime. Online safety technology is more accessible and advanced than ever, and we have the ability, knowledge and power to scale up the global response and prevent more children from being harmed.

“To tackle this complex, global issue, everyone with a role to protect children online needs to work together to dramatically improve the response.

“The internet, social media and other digital platforms can be a double-edge sword for children and young people. More than ever, these platforms can provide an important place for learning, interaction and socialising, but at the same time, they can be used to facilitate the sexual abuse of children and enable access to age-inappropriate content.

“Child sexual abuse is a crime that impacts children in real life, with deep and long-lasting consequences. There’s nothing about it that is virtual; it’s a very real crime.”