Estimates of childhood exposure to online sexual harms and their risk factors

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Estimates of childhood exposure to online sexual harms and their risk factors

A global study of childhood experiences of 18-20 year olds conducted by:

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The internet, social media and digital platforms can be double edged for children and young people. They enable learning, interaction and a platform to positively explore sexuality and relationships. But they can also facilitate sexual exploitation and abuse of children by adults and by peers, and access to age-inappropriate content. 

Economist Impact and WeProtect Global Alliance conducted a study of more than 5,000 18 to 20 year olds in 54 countries worldwide to find out more about their experiences of online sexual harms.

Online Sexual Harms

This study explores the experiences of 18 to 20 year olds across four online sexual harms:

Being sent sexually explicit content from an adult they knew or someone they did not know before they were 18.

Being asked to keep part of their sexually explicit online relationship with an adult they knew or someone they did not know before a secret.

Having sexually explicit images of them shared without consent (by a peer, an adult they knew, or someone they did not know before).

Being asked to do something sexually explicit online they were uncomfortable with (by a peer, an adult they know, or someone they did not know before).

Explore the survey data

Worryingly, many children reported experiencing sexual harms online during childhood. 

These online sexual harms against children are occurring across the world. 

Despite differences in levels of experience of online sexual harms, there was one constant in how such harms were perpetrated across regions and income groups

Minorities overall are more at risk 

Additional research is needed to understand how the digital world is changing the way children engage and what this means for their safety against online threats. Our study is a first step in painting a global picture of the issue, and identifying where future research would be valuable.

Age of first exposure to sexually explicit content online

The age at which children are first exposed to sexually explicit content seems to be dropping. The average age of first exposure among 18-year-old respondents was 12.7 years old, almost a full year younger than the average age of first exposure among 20-year-old respondents (13.4 years).

This is likely linked to rising access to the internet over the past decade. On average, our respondents first received access to the internet between 2014 and 2016. Since then, it is estimated that internet access has risen by a third globally, and by over 55% in low- and middle income countries (see below). This suggests that, over the past five years, the average age at which children are first exposed to sexually explicit content and online sexual harms has continued to drop.

Read the full report

Key findings from this global survey can also be found within the Global Threat Assessment 2021, alongside examples of how Alliance members are addressing these issues. The report also provides recommendations for how we can work together to deliver the step change in  the global response required to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse online.