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Campaign warns of online grooming over the summer

A campaign is reaching out to teenagers to empower them to stand up to online grooming and child sexual abuse over the summer.

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The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), with support from tech companies including Microsoft, Twitter, Snapchat, and TikTok are warning teens about online grooming and sexual abuse during the school summer holidays as a former top police child protection expert says the problem has “escalated” in recent years.

Former Chief Constable Simon Bailey, who recently retired as lead on child protection at the National Police Chiefs' Council, says he “fears another independent inquiry into child sexual abuse material” as the amount of teenage girls falling victim to internet groomers continues to soar.

An “explosion” of reports of child sexual abuse material in the first half of 2021 by the IWF has already been highlighted.

Between January 1 and June 14 this year, the IWF has worked to remove 100,616 web pages after IWF analysts confirmed they contained images or videos of children being raped and suffering sexual abuse. This compares to 62,234 reports during the same period in 2020, a 62% increase on this time last year.

So far in 2021, 64,278 reports have been confirmed to contain “self-generated material” where children have been tricked, groomed, or coerced into abusing themselves on camera. This material is often filmed in the victims’ own bedrooms, and can be of the most severe sexual abuse. The 64,278 reports in the first half of 2021 compares to 40,672 reports of self-generated material in the first six months of 2020.

The IWF is therefore launching a second phase of its Gurls out loud campaign in a bid to help protect teenage girls who may be spending longer online during the school summer holidays. The IWF will also relaunch its Home Truths campaign which will help to educate parents about the emerging threats online and how to help their children respond to them.

The IWF is warning of a tactic called ‘capping’ in which sexual predators are deliberately grooming and targeting children. Predators trick a child into abusing themselves over a camera-enabled device in footage which is then captured and shared by predators online. These videos and images are frequently swapped and used as “currency”.

Former Chief Constable Bailey said: “We have seen, through Covid, a perfect storm with children spending more time online and predators looking to exploit the opportunity to abuse them.

“This kind of threat has escalated throughout the last eight years. This is now going way beyond an online threat."

“During the pandemic we have seen a really worrying increase in the number of self-generated images being produced by girls aged between 11 and 13 years old.

“That is why the IWF campaign targeting this particular group of victims is so important. I was really impressed by the first phase of the campaign, but I think it needs to go on for longer.

“More and more children are being exploited and we need to mitigate that.

“This kind of threat has escalated throughout the last eight years. This is now going way beyond an online threat.

“My great fear is that in 15 or 20 years’ time there will be another independent inquiry into child sexual abuse material, and the question will be how did we allow this to happen?” he added.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said: “The numbers we are seeing, particularly of self-generated materials are crazy. We’re seeing reports in numbers we’ve never seen before. Self-generated material is now the predominant issue for IWF.

“Predators have adopted this disturbing new technique, and the images and videos of children they extort are now becoming currency for internet sex predators.

“With the summer holidays on the way, we want to reach out to teenagers and their parents to warn them of the dangers. We must not allow this to become the summer of online sexual abuse,” she concluded.

Find out more about the Gurls out loud campaign here.

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