Internet predators have exploited a rise in online activity during lockdown to manipulate primary school age children into abusing themselves on camera, with reports of such imagery rising by more than 1,000% in the UK since 2019.
The Internet Watch Foundation received reports of 63,050 webpages containing images and videos of children aged seven to 10 sexually abusing themselves on camera last year, an increase of just over 1,000% on the year before the coronavirus pandemic.
The IWF’s chief executive, Susie Hargreaves, said the Covid outbreak had exposed children to an “online backdoor” into households.
“During the pandemic, the internet was a lifeline. But we are only now unpacking the full effects. What is clear to us is that younger children are being pulled into abusive situations by rapacious predators, often while they are in their own bedrooms,” she said.
Examples seen by analysts at the IWF, which operates a UK-based hotline, include a nine-year-old being asked by adults, speaking via an online platform, to perform dares over a webcam. The call in her bedroom is interrupted by an oblivious, presumed family member who calls up asking her to run a bath for her younger brother. In another call seen by the IWF, a 10-year-old filming herself in a bathroom is interrupted by her mother who confiscates the phone.
In 2022, the IWF received 255,580 reports of images or videos of children under 18 being sexually abused, compared with 252,000 in 2021. It said three-quarters of those webpages contained footage made via an internet-connected device with a camera, as opposed to an abuser being physically present.
“Often, a child has been groomed, coerced and encouraged by someone interacting with the child online,” said the IWF.
Hargreaves added: “We must act now to ensure the growth we are seeing in this problem does not become endemic. This includes continuing to invest in programmes and prevention strategies that prevent children from becoming victims of child sexual abuse, protect the public from predators, and the pursuit of bringing offenders to justice.”
The lead for child protection and abuse investigations at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, deputy chief constable Ian Critchley, said the figures highlighted the “focus and priority that all of society must place on tackling these awful crimes”. He added: “The full impact of the pandemic on online offending may take years to fully understand, but we know that increased access to the internet, whilst a lifeline for many, allows exploitation by offenders. If you are engaged in this offending, we will find you.”
The forthcoming online safety bill, due to become law before the end of the year, requires platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google to proactively prevent child sexual abuse material from reaching users.