Online Child Exploitation

Most extreme online child sexual abuse material doubles in two years – with babies and toddlers among the victims

Feb 22, 2023

'An increasing number of children are experiencing abuse'

According to findings by an internet monitoring organization. As criminals monetize child sexual abuse and exploitation, these activities are no longer restricted to the dark web.

In 2022, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) intervened to eliminate or restrict access to 51,369 web pages featuring Category A child sexual abuse content.

The spokesperson said, “We invest heavily to help keep under 13s Since 2020, the volume of extreme content has doubled, with the IWF discovering 20,050 pages of Category A abuse at that time. In 2022, the total count of URLs containing such severe abuse reached an all-time high for the organization.

Category A represents the most extreme form of imagery, encompassing the gravest types of sexual abuse. The report revealed a correlation between the age of the child and the severity of the abuse. Among images involving children up to two years old, 81% depicted Category A abuse.

This compared to 50% of material relating to children aged three to six, 20% of those aged seven to 10 and 17% of those aged 11 to 13.

'An increased number of abused children, becoming younger in age'

Susie Hargreaves OBE, the CEO of IWF, informed Sky News that their analysts have observed an increasing number of abused children, who are also becoming younger in age.

“I continue to be shocked, after 12 years, that the worst level of abuse was on newborns to 2-year-olds. And that is the most vulnerable children who have absolutely no chance of defending themselves, being preyed upon and abused by adults,” she said.

“People need to realise this is very serious, nasty stuff.”

Category A material now constitutes 20% of all content encountered by the IWf, a rise from 18% in 2021 and 17% in 2020. The organisation now only receives reports from the public, but also actively seeks out such content.

'Many don't know they're being filmed'

Many of these children, the IWF said, don’t even realise they are being filmed and they said the amount of self-generated content has grown, showing children who have been coerced into acts by a remote abuser.

Writing in the report, Ms Hargreaves said: “We’ve always been careful not to describe in detail what we see as we don’t want to upset people, but we’re starting to believe that we have to start being more upfront and honest about the extent of the abuse we find, as the public needs to realise that we are talking about seven-year-olds, naked… under the direction and coercion of nasty, manipulative individuals.”

“It’s not helpful for people to call it… ‘child porn’ because it minimises the impact of the abuse on these children.” Far from a victimless crime, she urged people to remember there are real children at the heart of this.

She said she once met a “very brave survivor” who was rescued at the age of 12 and was now 20 years old. “She had someone come up to her in a shopping centre and say, ‘I’ve seen your pictures online’,” she said. “She said to me, ‘I feel physically scared every day’.

“So let’s call it what it is, this is the abuse of children who are the most vulnerable, who we should be protecting.”

Hiding ‘in plain sight’.

In 2022, the organisation assessed a web page every 90 seconds – every two minutes, that web page showed a child being sexually abused. Criminals are commercialising the sexual abuse and exploitation of children – but it is no longer confined to the dark web.

Rosa*, an internet content analyst at the IWF, said: “It is disturbing how matter-of-fact these sites are. Child sexual abuse is treated like a commodity on these sites.” She added: “People are now only one click away from Category A material. That is a public safety issue. This extreme material is no longer in the creepy corners of the internet. It’s in plain sight.”

These sites, however, are usually not hosted by mainstream hosting companies; they are primarily found on servers operated by lesser-known firms based in Europe or Asia. Under 1% of this content is hosted on UK servers, partly due to legislation enabling the swift removal of sites, which deters criminals seeking to profit from online child abuse.

Nevertheless, British children continue to be victimized, and the fact that criminals are compelled to host such content outside the UK makes it more challenging to remove. “These are children in bedrooms, and often [analysts] will hear the parents and domestic noises in the background so parents may think that they’re safe,” says Ms Hargreaves.

'A message to those viewing online abuse'
Ian Critchley, the NPCC lead for child protection and abuse investigations, said: “The rise in the most severe offending being found is deeply disturbing – not only are all internet users far more likely to be exposed to this harmful material, but it demonstrates once again how criminals have no regard for the life-long harm it causes these children.

“If you are viewing such material, be in no doubt – this is not a victimless crime. These are real children.”

He added: “If you read this, and are concerned about your own thoughts and behaviour, you can stop. The consequences of offending can last a lifetime. Seek help, now.”

Security minister Tom Tugendhat said: “Child sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime. It is paramount that the perpetrators of this abuse are identified and brought to justice. The Internet Watch Foundation’s work is vital in tackling child sexual abuse material online, and cracking down on offenders who seek to profit from young people’s pain.”

He added: “Most importantly, companies need to ensure that features such as end-to-end encryption have the necessary safety features built in so that they do not blind themselves to abuse occurring on their platforms.”

*Names have been changed

If you are concerned about child sexual abuse and would like to find a way to report it, visit Stop Abuse Together or the Internet Watch Foundation.

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