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Friday, December 1, 2023

Alarming Escalation in Child Sexual Abuse Online Revealed by Global Threat Assessment 2023 


Delhi, India, 20 October 2023 – WeProtect Global Alliance has released its fourth Global Threat Assessment Report, which revealed there has been an 87% increase in reported child sexual abuse material cases since 2019, with over 32 million reports globally (NCMEC). The findings underscore the pressing need for a coordinated, multi-faceted response to protect the world’s children from this escalating threat. Alarmingly, India continues to remain the one of the countries that NCMEC highlights with urgent reports of a child in imminent danger. The number of such referrals have increased over the years since 2020.

The report, which provides critical insights into the threats children face online in 2023, also found there has been a 360% increase in self-generated sexual imagery of 7-10-year-olds from 2020 to 2022 (Internet Watch Foundation). Shockingly, it was also revealed that conversations with children on social gaming platforms can escalate into high-risk grooming situations within 19 seconds, with an average grooming time of just 45 minutes. Social gaming environments that facilitate adult-child intermingling, exchanging virtual gifts and public ranking systems, significantly increase these risks. 

The research found a significant rise in financial sexual extortion, with reports of the harm jumping from 139 in 2021 to over 10,000 reports in 2022. This involves perpetrators grooming and manipulating children into sharing sexual images and video of themselves and then extorting them for monetary gain. Many extorters pose as young girls online and predominantly approach boys aged between 15-17 years via social media. This phenomenon has resulted in a string of cases where children have tragically taken their own lives.

New technology is heightening the threats that children face online. Since early 2023, cases of perpetrators also using generative Al to create child sexual abuse material and exploit children have been increasing. Thorn found that while less than 1% of child sexual abuse material files shared in a sample of offender communities are currently photorealistic computer-generated imagery (CGI) of child sexual abuse, the volume has increased consistently since August 2022. Last month, Australia, in a global first, put in place measures that require big tech companies to take steps to ensure AI products cannot be used to generate deepfake images and video of child sexual abuse. 

Iain Drennan, Executive Director of WeProtect Global Alliance says:

“Our latest report shows the scale of the threat children face online. Online-facilitated child sexual exploitation and abuse worldwide demands our attention and action right now. New technological capabilities further exacerbate existing risks, and the situation is no different in India. Children’s safety must be non-negotiable. To prevent more children from coming to harm, governments, online service providers, charities and companies must step up their efforts and work together to drive change and protect children.”

Dr Manjeer Mukherjee, Sr Director, Arpan – Towards Freedom from Sexual Abuse says:

“The Global Threat Assessment 2023 is out and has thrown some key insights for practitioners to ponder on and decrease the chasm between children’s perceptions of risk and how online harms manifest. Based on the Disrupting Harm study quoted in the report, in 60% of all cases of online abuse, the perpetrator was likely to be known to the child. This staggering fact dispels the myth that online sexual abuse is perpetrated primarily by strangers. This calls for the institutionalisation of comprehensive child-centred abuse prevention programmes which address both online and offline abuse by known people as often these operate in a continuum in both social spaces rather than in isolation.”

Turning the tide on current abuse trends will only be possible with increased prioritisation and commitment from all stakeholders involved in the response, empowered and enabled by maturing legislation. To fight back, all stakeholders, including governments, online service providers, civil society organisations, and responders, are urged to:

  • Invest in Public Health Approaches: Prioritise prevention and invest in interventions targeting those who have or are at risk of perpetrating or experiencing abuse. If we only invest in responding to the problem after the abuse has happened, we are failing children.
  • Centre Children’s Rights and Perspectives: Design interventions that empower children, remove barriers to abuse identification, and enable them to hold online service providers accountable.
  • Implement Globally Aligned Legislation: Prevent offenders from exploiting legal loopholes by enacting globally consistent internet regulations.
  • Adopt a Safety by Design Approach: Implement innovative approaches to technology design that prioritise user safety from the outset, not as an afterthought.

Additional findings:

  • Chasm in Children’s Perceptions: A significant gap exists between children’s perceptions of online risks and the actual manifestation of online abuse, with evidence showing that perpetrators are often known to the child and private platforms as where most sexual harm occurs. This highlights the need for improved age-appropriate online safety information and accessible reporting processes.
  • Pornography as a Precursor? The report highlights emerging evidence of a correlation between the frequent viewing of pornography and accessing child sexual abuse material.  
  • Minority groups targeted: Vulnerable minority and marginalised groups, including those based on sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or disability, are disproportionately exposed to online sexual harm.
  • Global instability increases abuse: Poverty, inequality, and global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and climate change, all contribute to the rise in child sexual exploitation and abuse.

Supporting quotes:

Vidya Reddy, Executive Director, Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse:

“There has been a noticeable increase in the reporting of child sexual abuse cases in India, reflecting a growing societal awareness and the willingness to confront a long-concealed issue. This positive trend underscores the collective efforts to break the silence surrounding this pervasive problem, which affects various demographics and disproportionately impacts certain groups. However, the complexities surrounding this issue go beyond culture and extend to infrastructure gaps, such as lengthy delays in cyber forensic processing, contributing to underreporting.”

Elsa-Marie DeSilva, Founder and leads the team at Red Dot Foundation – SafeCity, in India and USA:

“Year on year, we are witnessing a steep rise in child sexual abuse online. Our online spaces have become flooded with child sexual abuse material and, not only are the numbers rising, the methods of abuse and exploitation are becoming increasingly abhorrent. As a survivor of sexual violence in childhood, I am demanding that those with the power to curb this trend act now to ensure children are safe and free online.”

Courtney Gregoire, Chief Digital Safety Officer, Microsoft:

“Every child should be and feel safe when online. Today’s report exemplifies the need for continued collaborative efforts from governments, charities/NGOs, and companies, to end child sexual exploitation and abuse globally. At Microsoft, protecting children online sits at the heart of our safety efforts. Technology must be part of the solution and not the problem.”

Sheema Sen Gupta, UNICEF Director of Child Protection and WeProtect Global Alliance Policy Board Member:

“The swift advancement of technology is straining child protection and justice systems, which in many countries are already stretched thin. We urgently need to focus on large-scale prevention – this requires governments to invest in evidence-based interventions to protect children from sexual violence and for companies to adopt child-rights-by-design principles when developing digital products and services to prevent potential harm. We also need strong legislation to protect children from all forms of online child sexual exploitation, future-proofed against rapidly evolving technologies.”

To download the full report, please visit here: weprotect.org/global-threat-assessment-23/  

Media enquiries

Pooja Jethwani

Adfactors PR

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pooja.jethwani@adfactorspr.com 

WeProtect Global Alliance

media@weprotectga.org 

Notes to Editors

WeProtect Global Alliance 

WeProtect Global Alliance generates political commitment and practical approaches to make the digital world safe and positive for children, preventing sexual abuse and long-term harm.   

The Alliance’s reach is unprecedented: 102 countries are members along with 66 private sector companies, 92 civil society organisations and 9 intergovernmental organisations. Together, they break down complex problems and develop policies and solutions to protect children from sexual abuse online.  

More information on the Alliance and its members can be found at www.weprotect.org.   

Global Threat Assessment 2023 

WeProtect Global Alliance produces a Global Threat Assessment report every two years to assess and track the changing scale and nature of child sexual exploitation and abuse online, in order to inform and direct the global response. The 2023 edition is the fourth report in the series.  

It aims to encourage evidence-based action by recognising the progress achieved to date, recommending solutions and measures based on the evidence presented, and highlighting opportunities to prevent abuse before it happens. 


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