23 April 2024

Children as young as three ‘coerced into sexual abuse acts online’

23 April 2024

Children as young as three are being manipulated into acts sexual abuse, with the images and videos now being found on the open internet, a new report says.

The latest study from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) found thousands of images and videos online of three to six-year-olds who had been groomed, coerced or tricked into sexually abusive acts.

The IWF, which proactively tracks down and removes child sexual abuse imagery online, said opportunistic internet predators were directing children remotely and often recording them without their knowledge before sharing it on dedicated child sexual abuse websites.

The online safety organisation said it showed the need for more protections online, and said platforms needed to act immediately rather than waiting for new regulations, such as the Online Safety Act, to take effect.

Last week, data from Ofcom showed that around a third of children aged between five and seven used social media without parental supervision.

The IWF said it had seen some response from online firms, with the organisation reporting that record numbers of companies were taking services from it to stop abuse images circulating online.

Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said: “The opportunistic criminals who want to manipulate your children into disturbing acts of sexual abuse are not a distant threat – they are trying to talk to them now on phones and devices you can find in any family home.

“If children under six are being targeted like this, we need to be having age appropriate conversations, now, to make sure they know how to spot the dangers. A whole society approach is needed.

“The Online Safety Act also needs to work because these online harms are getting worse. It is imperative that we all take this threat seriously and that we are all doing our bit to prevent the spread of new and previously unseen child sexual abuse imagery. We can’t afford to wait until these codes come in. The harms are happening to children now, and our response must be immediate.

“We need a full society approach to make sure children are not groomed like this in the first place, but we also need to see measures in place to make sure this imagery cannot spread on the open web. We stand ready to help Ofcom and the technology sector find solutions.”

According to the IWF report, 92% of the 254,000 webpages it discovered in 2023 contained self-generated images of videos where the victim had been coerced, blackmailed or groomed into performing sexual acts over a webcam for a predator in a remote location.

The report said 2,401 self-generated images and videos of children in the three to six age category were discovered by analysts, 91% of which were of girls.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat said: “This deeply disturbing report shows that predators are targeting younger and younger victims. My message to parents is to speak to your children about their use of social media, because the platforms you presume safe may pose a risk.

“It’s vital that technology companies implement stronger safeguards to prevent abuse, and work with us to bring predators to justice and keep our children safe.”

Communications regulator Ofcom is currently in the process of drafting and consulting on new codes of practice for online platforms, which will set out how sites need to protect users under the Online Safety Act, but the first of these is not expected to come into force until next year.

Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said: “As this shocking report shows, there is truly no time to lose to keep our children safe online.

“We are one of the first countries in the world to put in place laws which will protect children from illegal, harmful, and age-inappropriate content. This is a vital step in protecting children from sexual exploitation and abuse and achieving our shared goal of making the UK the safest place to be online.

“We’ve consistently been at the forefront of child protection and will continue to build on this work. But we are very clear; companies should not wait and should act now to protect children.”

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