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New data shows social media giants continue to put profit above child safety amid sexual abuse explosion

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Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Shocking new data reveals opportunistic predators are manipulating children as young as three years old into “disturbing” sexual abuse while playing alone online.
Shocking new data reveals opportunistic predators are manipulating children as young as three years old into “disturbing” sexual abuse while playing alone online. Credit: Africa Studio - stock.adobe.com

New data from the Internet Watch Foundation reveals 2023 was its “most extreme year on record”, during which its analysts assessed almost 400,000 reports of online child sexual exploitation and abuse material.

The IWF, one of the world’s leading organisations fighting online child sexual abuse, said it was discovering more child sexual abuse imagery online than ever before in the organisation’s 28-year history.

Overall in 2023, the IWF found 275,652 web pages — a record-breaking amount — containing child sexual abuse material, according to the report released on Tuesday.

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Each URL assessed by analysts at the IWF — the UK’s front line against online child sexual abuse — could contain one, tens, hundreds or even thousands of individual child sexual abuse images or videos.

The disturbing data comes as governments across the globe increase pressure on tech giants to do more to tackle the issue.

IWF Chief Executive Susie Hargreaves said big tech companies, including social media giants, should act immediately, rather than waiting to be forced through regulation.

“The harms are happening to children now, and our response must be immediate,” she said.

“The IWF is ready to work with companies to develop solutions which can keep platforms safe, with unparalleled tagged datasets and knowledge which can help build new and effective tools.”

Deputy Chief Constable Ian Critchley, the lead for Child Protection at the UK National Police Chiefs’ Council, called out the tech giants in charge of the online platforms.

“Companies are still failing to protect children and continue far too often to put profit before child safety,” he said.

UK Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said the data, which showed predators targeting younger and younger victims, was “deeply disturbing” and urged parents to warn children under six about online dangers.

“My message to parents is to speak to your children about their use of social media, because the platforms you presume safe may pose a risk,” he said.

“It’s vital that technology companies implement stronger safeguards to prevent abuse, and work with us to bring predators to justice and keep our children safe.”

Every year, the IWF sees more sexual abuse images of children aged 11-13 than of any other age group, and the overwhelming majority of those victims are female.

But shocking data in its annual report revealed opportunistic predators were now manipulating children as young as three years old — who are using devices within the family home — into “disturbing” sexual abuse while playing alone online.

Children aged between three and six years old are increasingly being coerced into sexual activities via webcams and camera devices while their parents are nearby.

During 2023 IWF analysts discovered 2401 individual self-generated images and videos of children in this age category. Of these, 91 percent of the victims were girls.

New research published last week by the UK’s communications regulator revealed that a third of parents of five to seven year-olds reported that their child used social media independently.

Ms Hargreaves said that only highlighted the need for tech companies to be required to take action now.

“We need a full society approach to make sure children are not groomed like this in the first place, but we also need to see measures in place to make sure this imagery cannot spread on the open web,” she said.

Ms Hargreaves said organisations like the IWF were dealing with a never-ending queue of reports, more and more child sexual abuse content, year on year, the problem growing in its complexity – partly owing to the decisions big tech companies were making.

The chief executive recently said that social media companies had failed to protect children and “the controls they have in place simply aren’t good enough”.

“Boardroom decisions that put profit before all else can have real life, devastating consequences for the young people who use these platforms,” she said.

She said that politicians must take their share of responsibility too.

“Politics can drive change — now is the time to make those changes happen,” she said.

As well as highlighting the targeting of younger victims, the new report also revealed child sexual abuse online was becoming more extreme.

About 15 per cent of self-generated child sexual abuse imagery and videos featuring three to six year olds involved the most extreme (Category A) forms of sexual abuse.

The new analysis also showed there was a 22 per cent increase last year in webpages containing Category A child sexual abuse material.

In 2023, nearly all of the webpages the IWF discovered (92 per cent or 254,070 URLs) contained self-generated images or videos where the victim had been coerced, blackmailed, or groomed into performing sexual acts over a webcam for an internet predator in a remote location.

This so called “self-generated” child sexual abuse imagery, where a perpetrator is remote from the victim, is shared far and wide on dedicated child sexual abuse websites.

Analysts witnessed abuse occurring in domestic settings including bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens and dining rooms.

“To be clear, the term ‘self-generated’ does not mean that the child is instigating the creation of this sexual content themselves,” the report said.

“They are easily manipulated and are therefore an easy target for predators who are looking to exploit them.”

Almost a third of these images contained multiple children. When multiple children were seen, the 3–6-year-olds were most often seen with an older child who was possibly a sibling.

“It also goes to show how successful the abusers are at manipulating very young children into sexual behaviour that the child is unlikely to have previously been aware of,” Ms Hargreaves said.

“It also demonstrates the dangers of allowing a young child unsupervised access to an internet enabled device with a camera.”

Ms Hargreaves said “these online harms are getting worse”.

“The opportunistic criminals who want to manipulate your children into disturbing acts of sexual abuse are not a distant threat — they are trying to talk to them now on phones and devices you can find in any family home,” she said.

“If children under six are being targeted like this, we need to be having age appropriate conversations, now, to make sure they know how to spot the dangers. A whole society approach is needed.”

Ms Hargreaves said the data can only reflect the material her organisation has discovered through proactive searching or reports to its hotline.

“We cannot possibly know the true number of webpages showing children aged 7-10, or the true number of unique domains being abused to show child sexual abuse material as, sadly, there is too much out there for any of us – yet – to know the full extent of this content,” she said.

The IWF helps victims of child sexual abuse worldwide by identifying and removing online images and videos of their abuse.

The not for profit organisation also proactively searches for child sexual abuse content online, to have it removed.

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