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Lockdowns linked to tenfold rise in child sex imagery

Child at a computerGetty Images

Imagery of young children carrying out sexual acts on camera has risen by more than tenfold since the pandemic lockdowns, new data suggests.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) says its data highlights how predators took advantage of the situation.

Social media websites exploded in popularity in early 2020 when the pandemic began.

Last year the IWF logged more than 63,000 webpages showing the material compared to 5,000 before the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, the internet was a lifeline but we are only now unpacking the full effects,” said IWF chief executive Susie Hargreaves.

“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.”

Overall the IWF tracks, investigates and attempts to remove hundreds of thousands of incidents of child sexual abuse material from around the internet worldwide.

The charity says it is confident that the rise in self-generated material it is seeing is because of an increase in activity, because reporting levels have remained relatively similar in recent years.

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Self-generated child abuse videos and images now make up two-thirds of imagery investigated by analysts.

This refers to imagery of children sexually abusing themselves on camera while coerced by a predator over the internet.

Researchers say many of the videos are recorded or livestreamed from bedrooms or bathrooms, with sounds of a busy household in the background.

They are often done on a live chat, and recorded without the child’s knowledge to be shared and sold by paedophiles.

IWF is a UK-based organisation and says it is often hard to ascertain where the children are based from the videos. However, it passes on cases to authorities if a school uniform or other identifiers are visible.

Of the imagery, which the charity estimates is of seven to 10-year-olds, more than 8,000 items contained what is classed as Category A material.

This is the most severe kind, and can include penetrative sexual activity, images involving sexual activity with an animal, or sadism.

In one video seen by IWF analysts, a nine-year-old girl is instructed by adults over an online platform to perform sex acts while in her bedroom surrounded by cuddly toys.

She is asked to perform “super dirty” dares over a webcam, and is interrupted when a presumed family member, who is oblivious to the abuse taking place, calls up to ask her to run a bath for her (presumed) little brother.

The IWF is calling on the UK government to do more to protect children through the long-delayed Online Safety Bill.

The bill is currently being amended to potentially make tech platform bosses criminally liable for any failures to prevent, identify and remove child sexual abuse and exploitation content.

But the IWF says the material it processes is coming from all over the world and most of it is not hosted in the UK.

The United States National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children did not have figures for 2022, but reported an increase of child sexual abuse material in 2021. The charity’s CyberTipline received 29.4 million reports, up from 21.7 million in 2020.

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