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Scale of online child abuse demands global response

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According to a new report by the WeProtect Global Alliance, the scale of child sexual exploitation and abuse online is increasing at such a rapid rate that a global response is needed to create safe online environments for children.

WeProtect Global Alliance is a global movement of more than 200 governments, private sector companies and civil society organisations working together to transform the global response to child sexual exploitation and abuse online. Its 2021 Global Threat Assessment shows that, in the past two years, reports of child sexual exploitation and abuse online have reached their highest level, with the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) processing 60,000 reports of child sexual abuse online every day.

Since the 2019 Global Threat Assessment, the nature of harm has continued to grow and diversify. Over the past two years, the reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse online has reached its highest levels, with the Covid-19 pandemic being a big contributory factor behind the spike in reported incidents. The scale and rate of change is unprecedented, with more than 3,000,000 accounts are registered across the 10 most harmful child sexual abuse sites on the dark web, and in May 2021, Europol took down a child abuse site on the dark web with over 400,000 registered users.

However, the global response to these crimes needs a new approach. On average, 30 analysts at the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) process 60,000 Cyber Tipline reports of child sexual abuse online every day.

The rise in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material is another trend that challenges the existing response, with the Internet Watch Foundation observing a 77% increase in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material from 2019 to 2020.

Iain Drennan, executive director of WeProtect Global Alliance, says: “The internet has become central to children’s lives across the world, even more so as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, we have observed an increase in the scale and complexity of child sexual abuse online. This report should act as a wake-up call to us all; together we must step up the global response and create a safer digital world for all children.”

Online sexual harm is on the rise globally and remains a pervasive problem across the African continent. 57% of respondents in Southern Africa and 37% of respondents in Central Africa has experienced at least one incident of online sexual harm. The 2021 Global Threat Assessment report details the scale and scope of the threat of child sexual exploitation online and aims to encourage action on the issue to reduce the risk to children and prevent abuse before it happens.

Key insights from the report

1.      The scale and complexity of child sexual exploitation and abuse is increasing and is outstripping the global capacity to respond.

2.      Prevention needs to be prioritised. While a strong law enforcement and judicial response is essential, a truly sustainable strategy must include active prevention of abuse. There is a need to ensure the creation of safe online environments where children can thrive.

3.      To tackle this complex, global issue, everyone with a role to protect children online needs to work together to dramatically improve the response. There is reason to be hopeful with child sexual exploitation and abuse moving up the global agenda, online safety technology becoming more accessible and advanced, and governments doing more to act.

As part of the report, a global study of childhood experiences of more than 5,000 young adults (aged 18 to 20) across 54 countries was completed by Economist Impact. More than one in three respondents (34%) had been asked to do something sexually explicit online they were uncomfortable with during childhood.

Also included in the report was a survey of technology companies that showed most are using tools to detect child sexual abuse material (87% use image ‘hash-matching’), but only 37% currently use tools to detect online grooming.

WeProtect Global Alliance’s Global Strategic Response (GSR) provides a global strategy to eliminate child sexual exploitation and abuse, calling for greater voluntary cooperation, transparency, and implementation of online safety technologies, greater regulation to make online environments safer for children, and an increased investment in law enforcement.

Cornelius Williams, director of child protection programme team at UNICEF says; “It is clear that technology is dramatically changing the nature of child sexual exploitation and abuse online around the world, including across the African continent. No country is immune. Offenders have new ways to access and abuse children. It’s crucial that countries invest in systems and services for child protection to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place. This takes a coordinated effort within each country and across the globe.”

LGBTQ+ children at higher risk of online sexual harm

The Economist Impact survey also demonstrated that girls and respondents who identified as transgender/non-binary, LGBTQ+ and/or disabled were more likely to experience online sexual harms during childhood, and respondents who identified as racial or ethnic minorities were less likely to seek help:

  • Overall, 57% of female and 48% of male respondents reported at least one online sexual harm
  • 59% of respondents who identified as transgender/non-binary experienced an online sexual harm, compared to 47% of cisgender respondents
  • 65% of respondents who identified as LGBTQ+ experienced an online sexual harm, compared to 46% non-LGBTQ+
  • 57% of disabled respondents experienced an online sexual harm, compared to 48% of non-disabled respondents
  • 39% of racial or ethnic minority respondents would delete or block a person sending them sexually explicit content, compared to 51% of non-minority respondents.
  • 17% of racial or ethnic minority respondents spoke to a trusted adult or peer about the content, compared to 24% of non-minority respondents

To download the full report, visit https://bit.ly/GlobalThreatAssessment21

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