Sexual abuse: Safeguarding campaign after huge spike in self-generated images during lockdown

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Online sexual abuse: The Gurls Out Loud initiative is seeking to raise awareness and empower young girls to protect themselves online

Online predators are specifically targeting pre-pubescent children – aged from around seven to 13 – and bullying, grooming, deceiving or exhorting them into producing and sharing sexual images or videos.

Self-generated images and videos accounted for almost half of the online child sexual abuse material reported to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) last year. Covid-19 lockdowns have led to a huge spike in incidents.

The IWF works internationally to find and remove child sexual abuse content from the internet and has issued a stark warning after around 68,000 of the 153,369 reports in 2020 involved images and videos taken by the victims themselves.

What is more, this figure represents a 77 per cent increase since 2019, when the IWF reported 38,400 cases of self-generated images.

The analysis from the IWF raises particular concerns for girls aged 11 to 13, who were involved in more than 55,000 of the 68,000 cases of self-generated images and videos. There were also 8,231 cases of self-generated imagery involving seven to 10-year-olds.

However, case numbers drop to around 2,500 for the 14 to 17-year-old age category. Parents and schools are warned that it is very often pre-pubescent children who are being targeted as they are “less accomplished in their social, emotional and psychological development”.

A hard-hitting new campaign – GURLS OUT LOUD – is now warning girls and their parents about the dangers of being groomed online by sexual predators.

The figures come from the IWF’s 2020 annual report, which states: “We continue to see an exponential increase in what is termed self-generated child sexual abuse content, created using webcams or smartphones and then shared online via a growing number of platforms.

“In some cases, children are groomed, deceived or extorted into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves. The images and videos predominantly involve girls aged 11 to 13-years-old, in their bedrooms or another room in a home setting. With much of the world subject to periods of lockdown at home due to Covid-19, the volume of this kind of imagery has only grown.”
The new campaign has been supported by the UK Home Office and Microsoft and is aiming to empower girls and warn parents. Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said: “The scale of the problem is appalling, and our fear is that without intervention it will get worse, and more and more girls will fall victim to this pernicious and manipulative form of abuse.

“This is a pivotal time. With more people spending more time online, predators are finding new ways to contact and manipulate children who are, in many cases, a captive audience at home with their devices. Lockdown has made this worse.

“Some of the campaign is shocking. But the threat and the abuse is shocking. We don’t want to frighten people, but we do want to build resilience to the threat of self-generated sexual abuse of children. We want to help teenage girls to recognise the actions that constitute self-generated sexual abuse as abuse. We want them to feel empowered to take control, and to understand how to deal with inappropriate requests and report them to a trusted source.”

Tink Palmer, CEO of the Marie Collins Foundation, a charity which works to help victims of child sexual abuse and their families, warned that younger children are targets as they are often more likely to listen to “grown-ups” without question.

“In many cases it is pre-pubescent children who are being targeted. They are less accomplished in their social, emotional and psychological development. They listen to grown-ups without questioning them, whereas teenagers are more likely to push back against what an adult tells them.”

She continued: “What we hear from victims is that they felt what they were doing was wrong but felt forced to do it. They are likely to feel confused. If it’s a fearful situation, that will be something they carry forward and will, almost inevitably, cause problematic behaviours or understandings about relationships.”

As well as reaching out to children, a second, linked campaign – entitled Home Truths – will aim to raise parental awareness of – and education about – the issue. A televised advert will depict a queue of adult sex predators lining up outside a house, before progressing inside and upstairs to a child’s bedroom, with the child’s parents oblivious to the open door to abuse in their own home.

Parents are encouraged to TALK to their children about the dangers:

  • Talk to your child about online sexual abuse. Start the conversation and listen to their concerns.
  • Agree ground rules about the way you use technology as a family.
  • Learn about the platforms and apps your child loves. Take an interest in their online life.
  • Know how to use tools, apps and settings that can help to keep your child safe online.
  • Discuss and agree on privacy settings for the platforms and apps your child uses, and on more general settings for the family.

Anyone can make a report to the IWF about online child sexual abuse images and videos. The IWF’s work to remove online content covers images and videos of child sexual abuse and reports are anonymous. Those reporting should provide the exact URL if possible and can include non-photographic visual depictions of the sexual abuse of children, such as computer-generated images.

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