A new report by an international campaign group reveals the alarming scale and nature of online child sexual exploitation and abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Online child abuse images increased by 87% in two years
The report, released by the WeProtect Global Alliance, shows an 87% increase in reported cases of online child abuse images to more than 32 million globally. The group collected data from law enforcement agencies, internet companies, civil society organizations and academic institutions from 40 countries.
The report attributes the surge in online child abuse images to several factors, such as:
- Increased internet access and usage by children and offenders during lockdowns
- Increased demand and supply of child sexual abuse material on the dark web and encrypted platforms
- Increased use of live streaming platforms and social gaming environments for grooming and exploitation of children
- Increased production and distribution of self-generated sexual images by children, often coerced by offenders or influenced by social media trends
Younger children are more vulnerable to online abuse
The report also warns that younger children are more vulnerable to online abuse, especially those who are isolated, lonely or have less parental supervision. The report found that the number of self-generated sexual images of seven to ten-year-olds had more than quadrupled between 2020 and 2022.
The report cites examples of how offenders target younger children online, such as:
- Posing as children or celebrities to lure them into sending nude or sexual images or videos
- Using popular online games or apps to initiate contact and build trust with children
- Using blackmail, threats or rewards to coerce children into performing sexual acts on camera or meeting them offline
- Using generative AI to create realistic images or videos of children that do not exist or are manipulated
AI poses new challenges and opportunities for combating online abuse
The report also highlights the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in both facilitating and combating online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The report says that AI can be used by offenders to create, enhance or conceal child sexual abuse material, as well as to evade detection and identification by law enforcement.
However, the report also says that AI can be used by internet companies, civil society organizations and law enforcement agencies to prevent, detect and remove child sexual abuse material online, as well as to identify and rescue victims and prosecute offenders.
The report gives examples of how AI can be used for good, such as:
- Using image recognition and natural language processing to flag suspicious content or conversations online
- Using machine learning and big data analysis to identify patterns and trends of online abuse
- Using facial recognition and biometric analysis to match victims and offenders across different platforms and devices
- Using deepfake detection and verification to expose fake or manipulated images or videos
International cooperation is needed to protect children online
The report calls for a coordinated international response to protect children online from sexual exploitation and abuse. The report urges governments, online service providers, charities and companies to work together to drive change and protect children.
The report suggests some possible ways to improve international cooperation, such as:
- Creating ethical standards and best practices for developing and using AI for child protection
- Ensuring transparency and accountability of internet companies for their actions and inactions on child safety
- Fostering public awareness and education on the risks and harms of online abuse
- Providing support and assistance to victims and survivors of online abuse
- Sharing data and intelligence across borders and sectors to enhance investigations and prosecutions
What will happen next?
The report concludes with a call to action for all stakeholders to join forces and take urgent action to end online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The report says that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the scale and severity of the problem, but also the opportunity and responsibility to solve it.
The report says: “Online-facilitated child sexual exploitation and abuse worldwide demands our attention and action right now. Children’s safety must be non-negotiable. We have the tools, we have the knowledge, we have the will. Now we need action.”
However, the report also acknowledges the challenges and complexities of tackling online abuse in a constantly evolving digital landscape. The report says that new technologies will bring new risks and opportunities for both offenders and defenders.
The report says: “We must be prepared for the unknown. We must be agile, innovative and collaborative. We must be ready to adapt, learn and improve. We must never give up.”