The 2021 Global Threat Assessment Report Shows Scale of Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Online is Increasing; Calls for a Stronger Collective Global Response

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New Delhi: WeProtect Global Alliance, a global movement of more than 200 governments, private sector companies and civil society organisations working together to transform the global response to child sexual exploitation and abuse online, has published its 2021 Global Threat Assessment.

Its findings show that the scale of child sexual exploitation and abuse online is increasing at such a rapid rate that a step change is urgently required in the global response to create safe online environments for children.

It shows that in the past two years the reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse online has reached its highest levels with the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) processing 60,000 reports of child sexual abuse online every day. A report published in 2020 stated that India has seen a 95 per cent increase in internet searches for child sexual abuse materials during COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is undeniably one contributory factor behind the spike in reported incidents. The rise in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material is another trend that challenges the existing response with the Internet Watch Foundation observing a 77 per cent increase in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material from 2019 to 2020.

Iain Drennan, Executive Director of WeProtect Global Alliance, says: “The internet has become central to children’s lives across the world, even more so as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, we have observed an increase in the scale and complexity of child sexual abuse online. This report should act as a wake-up call to us all; together we must step up the global response and create a safer digital world for all children.”

The 2021 Global Threat Assessment report details the scale and scope of the threat of child sexual exploitation online and aims to encourage action on the issue to reduce the risk to children and prevent abuse before it happens.

The three main insights of the report are:

  • The scale and complexity of child sexual exploitation and abuse are increasing and are outstripping the global capacity to respond.
  • Prevention needs to be prioritised. While strong law enforcement and judicial response are essential, a truly sustainable strategy must include the active prevention of abuse. There is a need to ensure the creation of safe online environments where children can thrive.
  • To tackle this complex, global issue, everyone with a role to protect children online needs to work together to dramatically improve the response. There is reason to be hopeful with child sexual exploitation and abuse moving up the global agenda, online safety technology becoming more accessible and advanced, and governments doing more to act.

As part of the report, a global study of childhood experiences of more than 5,000 young adults (aged 18 to 20) across 54 countries was completed by Economist Impact. More than one in three respondents (34 per cent) had been asked to do something sexually explicit online they were uncomfortable with during their childhood.

Also included in the report was a survey of technology companies that showed most are using tools to detect child sexual abuse material (87 per cent use image ‘hash-matching’), but only 37 per cent currently use tools to detect online grooming.

WeProtect Global Alliance’s Global Strategic Response (GSR) provides a global strategy to eliminate child sexual exploitation and abuse, calling for greater voluntary cooperation, transparency, and implementation of online safety technologies, greater regulation to make online environments safer for children, and increased investment in law enforcement.

Tarang Khurana, Chair, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)’s Young Indian’s Project Masoom said, “There is enough evidence to infer that lockdowns and disruptions caused due to COVID-19 have significantly contributed to the spike in online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The easy access to abusive content involving children is deeply concerning. The universality of the problem requires collaborative action, and we all have a shared responsibility to end this. Along with strong law enforcement, it is imperative to create empowered individuals, society, and community, who come together to uproot this systemic menace.”

The Economist Impact survey also demonstrated that girls, and respondents who identified as transgender/non-binary, LGBQ+ and/or disabled, were more likely to experience online sexual harm during childhood, and respondents who identified as racial or ethnic minorities were less likely to seek help:

  • Overall, 57 per cent of female and 48 per cent of male respondents reported at least one online sexual harm
  • 59 per cent of respondents who identified as transgender/non-binary experienced online sexual harm, compared to 47 per cent of cisgender respondents
  • 65 per cent of respondents who identified as LGBQ+ experienced online sexual harm, compared to 46 per cent of non-LGBQ+
  • 57 per cent of disabled respondents experienced online sexual harm, compared to 48 per cent of non-disabled respondents
  • 39 per cent of racial or ethnic minority respondents would delete or block a person sending them sexually explicit content, compared to 51 per cent of non-minority respondents
  • 17 per cent of racial or ethnic minority respondents spoke to a trusted adult or peer about the content, compared to 24 per cent of non-minority respondents