Younger children are being targeted online for sexual abuse “on an industrial scale” by internet groomers, the Internet Watch Foundation has warned.
There was a three-fold increase in imagery showing 7–10-year-olds who have been targeted and groomed by internet predators in 2021, the charity warns as it outlines that more reports were investigated in 2021 than in the whole first 15 years of IWF’s existence.
Chief executive of the IWF, Susie Hargreaves, said: “Children are being targeted, approached, groomed and abused by criminals on an industrial scale. 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.
“We then see how this content is shared repeatedly across many websites, creating a despicable market place for this material. This is what we tackle on a global scale in partnership with internet companies, law enforcement bodies, and other hotlines around the world,” she added.
The Internet Watch Foundation 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 last year, IWF analysts investigated 361,000 reports, including tip offs from the public, of suspected criminal material. This is more than they dealt with in the entire first 15 years of their existence when they assessed 335,558 reports between 1996 to 2011.
There has been a sharp increase in content showing the abuse of children aged between 7 and 10 years old. Online sexual predators have taken advantage of children spending more time online during the pandemic and manipulating them into recording their own sexual abuse on camera. The footage is then shared among other criminals on the open internet.
In 2020, the IWF investigated 299,600 reports of sexual imagery. Of these reports, 153,350 were confirmed as containing images and/or videos of children being sexually abused. The 2021 figures show a 21% rise in the number of reports investigated, and a 64% increase in the number of actioned reports.
The charity warns that self-generated content of children aged 11-13 remains the biggest age group for this kind of material. In 2021, 147,900 reports contained self-generated material involving children aged between 11 and 13. In 2020, 55,300 reports included self-generated material involved children in this age group. This is a 167% increase.
Self-generated child sexual abuse content is created using webcams, often in the child’s own room, and then shared online. Children are often groomed, deceived or extorted into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves. Some videos contain Category A material – the most severe level of abuse which includes self-penetrative sexual activity.
Susie Hargreaves added: “We have identified criminals that have exploited opportunities to reshare the same images again and again on a large scale by moving hosts and countries.
“Devices can be an open door into your home, and children can be especially vulnerable to being drawn into these predators’ traps. 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.
“Parents need to be supported in knowing how to broach the topic with their children, and to give them the confidence to call out inappropriate behaviour when they see it. We’re pleased to see the government stepping in to help educate parents, and provide them with ways they can help protect children from this growing problem,” said Ms Hargreaves.
The government launches a new campaign and website Stop Abuse Together to help parents and carers spot the signs of sexual abuse in a bid to protect children and keep them safe.
The new campaign aims to help people to spot the signs of sexual abuse and have regular conversations with their child which can help keep them safe and know when it’s right to reach out for more support.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay said: “The internet is a vital resource for children to learn and socialise with their peers, but this shocking data shows the unacceptable risks that children can face online.
“Our National Cyber Strategy aims to make the UK the safest place to live and work online. Strengthening laws and working across Government, law enforcement and internet providers to fight malicious online activity.
“With the new Stop Abuse Together campaign, we will help empower millions of parents to spot the potential signs of child sexual abuse and take action to keep their children safe.
“All children have a right to be safe from the abhorrent crime of sexual abuse, and we all have a role to play in keeping them safe. Let’s stop abuse together,” he concluded.