Alarming Escalation in Child Sexual Abuse Online, Revealed

AI is now being used to generate child sexual abuse material

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Image for illustration purposes only - by Annie Spratt

WeProtect Global Alliance has released its fourth Global Threat Assessment Report, which revealed there has been an 87% increase in reported child sexual abuse material cases since 2019, with over 32 million reports globally (NCMEC). The findings underscore the pressing need for a coordinated, multi-faceted response to protect the world’s children from this escalating threat.

The report, which provides critical insights into the threats children face online in 2023, also found there has been a 360% increase in self-generated sexual imagery of 7-10-year-olds from 2020 to 2022 (Internet Watch Foundation). Shockingly, it was also revealed that conversations with children on social gaming platforms can escalate into high-risk grooming situations within 19 seconds, with an average grooming time of just 45 minutes. Social gaming environments that facilitate adult-child intermingling, exchanging virtual gifts and public ranking systems, significantly increase these risks.

The research found a significant rise in financial sexual extortion, with reports of the harm jumping from only 139 in 2021 to over 10,000 reports in 2022. This involves perpetrators grooming and manipulating children into sharing sexual images and video of themselves and then extorting them for monetary gain. Many extorters pose as young girls online and predominantly approach boys aged between 15-17 years via social media. This phenomenon has resulted in a string of cases where children have tragically taken their own lives.

New technology is heightening the threats that children face online. Since early 2023, cases of perpetrators also using generative Al to create child sexual abuse material and exploit children have been increasing. Thorn found that while less than 1% of child sexual abuse material files shared in a sample of offender communities are currently photorealistic computer-generated imagery (CGI) of child sexual abuse, the volume has increased consistently since August 2022. Last month, Australia, in a global first, put in place measures that require big tech companies to take steps to ensure AI products cannot be used to generate deepfake images and video of child sexual abuse.

Executive Director of WeProtect Global Alliance, Iain Drennan says, “Our latest report shows the scale of the threat children face online. Online-facilitated child sexual exploitation and abuse worldwide demands our attention and action right now. New technological capabilities further exacerbate existing risks, and the situation is no different in Malaysia. Children’s safety must be non-negotiable. To prevent more children from coming to harm, governments, online service providers, charities and companies must step up their efforts and work together to drive change and protect children.”

Turning the tide on current abuse trends will only be possible with increased prioritisation and commitment from all stakeholders involved in the response, empowered and enabled by maturing legislation. In Malaysia, in 2022 the Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) announced a review of the current online content regulation and framework.

To fight back, all stakeholders, including governments, online service providers, civil society organisations, and responders, are urged to:

  • Invest in Public Health Approaches: Prioritise prevention and invest in interventions targeting those who have or are at risk of perpetrating or experiencing abuse. If we only invest in responding to the problem after the abuse has happened, we are failing children.
  • Centre Children’s Rights and Perspectives: Design interventions that empower children, remove barriers to abuse identification, and enable them to hold online service providers accountable.
  • Implement Globally Aligned Legislation: Prevent offenders from exploiting legal loopholes by enacting globally consistent internet regulations.
  • Adopt a Safety by Design Approach: Implement innovative approaches to technology design that prioritise user safety from the outset, not as an afterthought.

Additional findings:

  • Chasm in Children’s Perceptions: A significant gap exists between children’s perceptions of online risks and the actual manifestation of online abuse, with evidence showing that perpetrators are often known to the child and private platforms as where most sexual harm occurs. This highlights the need for improved age-appropriate online safety information and accessible reporting processes.
  • Pornography as a Precursor? The report highlights emerging evidence of a correlation between the frequent viewing of pornography and accessing child sexual abuse material.
  • Minority groups targeted: Vulnerable minority and marginalised groups, including those based on sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or disability, are disproportionately exposed to online sexual harm.
  • Global instability increases abuse: Poverty, inequality, and global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and climate change, all contribute to the rise in child sexual exploitation and abuse.

“At TikTok, our goal is to make our platform inhospitable to any form of child sexual exploitation or abuse. Safety by design is a core part of how we approach harm prevention and we’re pleased to see its importance highlighted by the Global Threat Assessment,” said Cormac Keenan, Head of Trust and Safety, TikTok.

Meanwhile, Sheema Sen Gupta, UNICEF Director of Child Protection and WeProtect Global Alliance Policy Board Member shared, “The swift advancement of technology is straining child protection and justice systems, which in many countries are already stretched thin. We urgently need to focus on large-scale prevention – this requires governments to invest in evidence-based interventions to protect children from sexual violence and for companies to adopt child-rights-by-design principles when developing digital products and services to prevent potential harm. We also need strong legislation to protect children from all forms of online child sexual exploitation, future-proofed against rapidly evolving technologies.”

According to Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, UN, “In order to make the online world safer, it’s critical to understand children’s perceptions of safety to tailor responses appropriately. The message from children is clear: we have a lot more to do to ensure the digital environment is a safe and protective space for and with them.”

Etienne Krug, Director Social Determinants of Health –  World Health Organisation says, “The Global Threat Assessment reveals, once again, that unwanted online sexual solicitation and cyberbullying remains a pervasive issue for children. 2/3 of cyberbullying victims also experience bullying away from screens, emphasizing the strong connection between violence online and offline. While acknowledging the benefits of internet access for children and young people, it is crucial to put an end to violence online. Digital service providers need to take action; in addition government and school officials, civil society organizations, faith based groups, parents and young people themselves also have a key role to play. It is essential to promote empathy, the nurturing of healthy relationship skills and policies that bolster the mental health of children in the digital realm and in the real world.”

WeProtect Global Alliance generates political commitment and practical approaches to make the digital world safe and positive for children, preventing sexual abuse and long-term harm.

The Alliance’s reach is unprecedented: 102 countries are members along with 66 private sector companies, 92 civil society organisations and 9 intergovernmental organisations. Together, they break down complex problems and develop policies and solutions to protect children from sexual abuse online.

To download the full report, please visit here: weprotect.org/global-threat-assessment-23/