Impact of COVID-19 on child sexual exploitation and abuse online

COVID-19 coronavirus

WeProtect Global Alliance – Briefing

May 13, 2020

This briefing paper brings together and assesses the currently available material on the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on online child sexual exploitation.1

Summary findings

  • It is highly probable that numbers of online child sexual exploitation (OCSE) cases will increase during the period of COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Greater unsupervised internet use means children are likely to be exposed to greater risk of sexual exploitation online, including sexual coercion, extortion and manipulation by offenders. Exchange of self-generated material is also likely to increase, as children are now experiencing most of their social lives only online.
  • The increase in the numbers of emotionally vulnerable children poses greater risk for increased grooming by offenders.
  • Isolation due to COVID-19 is likely to increase the probability of offenders acting on their impulses.
  • Economic hardship and the inability of offenders to travel due to COVID-19 lockdown is likely to increase the potential for livestreaming abuse in home environments. Livestreaming is also likely to increase due to the higher production of self-generated sexual content by children themselves.
  • COVID-19 restrictions are disrupting reporting services, with current systems still reliant on human moderation.
  • The current focus within governments and law enforcements on COVID-19, and disruption caused by associated protective measures, are leading to lower prioritisation of online child sexual exploitation in many jurisdictions.

Growth in child sexual exploitation online cases during lockdown

  1. The global COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictive measures, have disrupted millions of lives, including those of our children. We assess that the current environment has exacerbated existing drivers of online child sexual exploitation2, providing new opportunities for abusers.
  2. Although it is too early to see substantive changes in terms of quantitative data3, reporting from stakeholders indicates that it is highly probable that numbers of online child sexual abuse cases will increase:
  • Specialist cybersecurity company Web-IQ has revealed that between February 2020 and the end of March 2020 there has been an increase of over 200% in posts on known child sex abuse forums that link to downloadable images and videos hosted on the clearnet4.
  • In India, the India Child Protection Fund (ICPF) has registered a spike in online searches for CSAM since the beginning of lockdown in India, which we assess is an indicator of offenders migrating online5.
  • The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has registered a 106% increase in reports of suspected child sexual exploitation – rising from 983,734 reports in March 2019 to 2,027,520 in the very same month in 20206.
  • The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA)’s analysis of online chats shows that offenders are discussing new opportunities to exploit children during lockdown7.
  • According to an April Europol report, criminals have quickly adapted their modus operandi to the new circumstances, which has led to a surge in the number of offenders trying to contact young people on social media, an increasing number of connections from which child sexual abuse material (CSAM) has been downloaded over peer-to-peer file sharing networks and, in some states like Spain, a substantial increase in the number of complaints submitted by the public to hotlines and law enforcement institutions8.
  • Hotlines and portals are registering an increase in reporting. For instance, ECPAT Sweden has signaled a clear increase in reports of online child sexual abuse to several of their hotlines . INHOPE has stated that reports of child sexual exploitation9 activity to cybertip hotlines are up by an average of 30% globally ; British charity10 Barnardos has identified a new trend of children aged 12-13 years unexpectedly coerced in online settings11.
  • Pornhub has reported that there has been an exponential increase in the viewing of adult pornography, assessed by Marie Collins Foundation (MCF) to indicate a likely similarly exponential rise in viewing of CSAM12.

Key risk factors for children during COVID-19 pandemic

  1. The impact of the Coronavirus lockdown has caused both children and those seeking to offend to spend more time online . We assess the following to be key areas of risk:
  • Higher level of emotional vulnerability:
    • Research from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has shown how abusers will often target children who have shown vulnerability online13. At the end of March 2020, NSPCC’s counselling service Childline had already delivered more than 900 sessions to children worried about COVID-1914 and, according to recent figures released by the Children’s Commissioner for England, 88% of children interviewed in March indicated they felt extremely stressed15.
    • Moreover, a recent survey by Young Minds found that 83% of children with a history of mental health needs felt the pandemic had made their mental health a bit or even much worse16. UNICEF has reported increasing numbers of children worried about being isolated from family and friends and catching or even dying from the virus17. The Australian eSafety Commissioner has seen a notable increase in stress, worry and self-harm indicators in child cyberbullying complaints18.
    • It is therefore very likely that the numbers of emotionally vulnerable children groomed online will grow. Despite not linking the phenomenon strictly to mental vulnerability, Europol has also noted that a higher number of children maybe more inclined towards self-production of CSAM to exchange with their own peers or, depending on various factors, even to send to adults19.
  • Lack of caregiver supervision: COVID-19 lockdown has meant that millions of people worldwide are now based primarily at home. As of 3 April 2020, school closures due to COVID-19 were impacting more than 90% of the world’s school population20 affecting more than 1.5 billion children and young people21. With parents balancing childcare and homeschooling with other responsibilities, children are likely to be exposed to more unsupervised screen time and therefore to more risks of sexual exploitation online.
    • Research conducted by SafeToNet over the period 24 February to 12 April 2020 indicated that children are indeed exposed to longer screen time, which may very well be linked to an increasing lack of child supervision with parents now working from home22. Unsupervised internet access will increasingly expose children to grooming and manipulation by offenders through online gaming and the use of chat groups as well as live streaming and video chat services.
    • The lack of age verification on most social media sites, along with peer pressure and access to parents’ or siblings’ devices, may introduce younger children to adult-focused services and platforms, increasing their exposure to offenders.

Offenders attitudes

  1. We judge that offenders will seek to exploit the COVID-19 lockdown to carry out abuse online. Although it is difficult at this stage to assess exact variations and changes in the offenders patterns of behaviour, some early qualitative evidence has started to emerge:
  • Impact of stress variation factors: Offenders are usually more likely to offend when their lifestyle is affected by a significant change23. In addition, there is operational evidence that many of the members of online websites and forums displaying CSAM do not have significant social support outside these platforms. Therefore, we assess that confinement due to COVID-19 could represent the trigger factor that will lead more offenders to increase or initiate illegal activity online. Recent data from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation show that in the two weeks after lockdown started in the UK there has been a 41% increase in users of the “Get Help” section of their Stop It Now! website (created for those with concerns about their own sexual behaviour towards children), with a total percentage of new users rising from 26% prior to 64% after lockdown24.
  • Grooming ahead of planned travel: According to ECPAT, some offenders are likely to use the opportunity given by COVID-19 confinement to groom children online today with the prospect of visiting them to carry out abuse once travel restrictions have been eased25.
  • Potential for increase in live streaming: As a significant amount of CSE live streaming is usually done from home environments (96% of live streamed abuse investigated by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) showed a child on their own, in a home environment26) and often involves the victim’s parents, it is highly likely this form of offending will increase due to COVID-19 restrictions. Furthermore, economic hardship due to COVID-19 will exacerbate the economic factors driving CSE, especially in impoverished areas27.
  • Traffic on the dark web: Recent data from Europol not only confirms that CSAM continues to be distributed via dark web platforms, but also suggests that there has been an increase in activity here since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic28. Moreover, operational evidence29 shows an increasing number of conversations between offenders sharing their excitement over the additional time they now have to share and access CSAM content during lockdown.

Impact on response measures

  1. In addition to the difficulties in reporting encountered by those children who are now trapped with their offenders30, isolation measures have also increased the difficulties in processing reports of online abuse, creating a secondary impact. The IWF has registered an 89% reduction in the number of URLs taken down after being identified as showing child sexual abuse between 16 March 2020 and 15 April 2020 in comparison to the previous month. Many tech companies and law enforcement units are now obliged to work remotely, which means less access to the tools they would need to take down the material quickly and effectively31. As hotlines are forced to reduce their human moderators, content remains live for longer. Existing artificial intelligence (AI) based systems are being placed under unprecedented stress, having been designed to operate with greater human oversight.
  2. In many countries, law enforcement personnel have been diverted from cybercrime offences to supporting lockdown measurements, ultimately generating further disruption in the service to counteract OCSE. An April report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also stated that in several States, investigative and judicial procedures are disrupted by the need to conduct these type of activities in person, which is not currently possible32.

Resources for further action

  1. The Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children (EVAC) has provided resources33 to provide support during the COVID-19 pandemic, including advice for parents, care-givers, educators and children. Material focused specifically on online harms includes a public safety campaign34 from a range of major tech companies (including Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Roblox and Snapchat).
  2. Australia’s eSafety Commissioner has also developed a series of resources and tools to keep children safe online during COVID-19 isolation. Visit their website for online safety kits, tips for caregivers, and more, including a guide for parents across the world.
  3. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation continues now more than ever its work aimed at offering prevention help to those who may be concerned about their own sexual behaviour or of their loved ones. Visit their Stop It Now! website to access their “Get Help” section offering self-help resources as well as advice for family members, parents, carers and professionals.