Online child sexual abuse at record high levels - with some exploited within minutes

One in three reports of child sexual abuse on the internet involve 11 to 13-year-old girls - the largest group of people to suffer, reports ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson

Online child sexual abuse is at record high levels, according to exclusive figures given to ITV News.

An Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) report says the greatest threat to children online is self-generated content where perpetrators groom and coerce children into creating images and videos of themselves. The offender records that content and shares it on the web.

The IWF, which searches and removes vile abuse, says it has seen an “explosion” in this type of crime over the past two years, with an increase of 374%.

This is partly down to Covid lockdowns, it said, when so many more people were online, but it is also down to the proliferation of social media and the changing trends of its use.

The IWF also reveals one in three reports of child sexual abuse on the internet involve 11 to 13-year-old girls - the largest group of people to suffer. But the fastest-growing group is seven to 10-year-olds.

ITV News was given access to the real transcripts of grooming conversations between child victims and their abusers by the IWF, to understand the level of manipulation and the way offenders lure children through social media with ease.

Offender: So can you show me?

Victim: What?

Offender: You know. I want to see all of you, no clothes.

Offender: Show me. No underwear this time.

Victim: If I can

Victim: Is that it? Then you don’t ask me again?

Offender: Yeah maybe.

Offender: So I’m waiting.

Offender: How old did you say you are?

Victim: 15

Offender: You look older in the other pics you posted. Hot

Offender: Turn around for me.

Offender: Move so I can see you properly. Don’t cover

Victim: Don’t send stuff out plz

Offender: So keep coming back on here then. 

We spoke to 'Rosa' who is a senior analyst for IWF. It is her job to search and analyse self-generated content and remove it. She has to hide her identity because of the sensitive nature of her role.

Every day, she has to view these abusive videos and images. Some victims are groomed for weeks on social media, others are exploited within minutes.

"An offender won't think twice about asking a seven-year-old to take their clothes off," Rosa said

"The volume is shocking and it becomes greater and greater and greater as time goes on. An offender won't think twice about asking a seven-year-old to take their clothes off," she said.

"The minute we log onto our computers, access the web, we can find self-generated content.

"Children might choose to broadcast themselves, or livestream themselves dancing, telling jokes, doing homework and then an offender will target them directly and turn the conversation or livestream into something sexual.

"And when one child starts to respond all the other predators - like sharks in the water - will zoom in and encourage the child further."

"While they (the children) are alone in the room and they're not being physically abused, they are abusing themselves"

I met Becky who was groomed online from the age of 11 for seven years. Her abuser originally contacted her through one platform, developed their relationship over months, moving their chat onto multiple different social media platforms.

"Without social media my abuse wouldn't have happened. Once in contact with a victim, an abuser has nearly unlimited access to them," she said.

"I would sit in bed talking to him, I could be having dinner with my parents and getting messages from him and they would have no idea. He very quickly was able to take control of my life so I would do anything that he asked me."

Survivors of childhood sexual assault - and the recording and sharing of their abuse - don't simply get over it. They are haunted by it for the rest of their lives.

"At the age of 15, I tried to take my own life... I didn't understand what was going on and I was just trying to find a way to escape"

"I was self-harming. I was going out and using alcohol irresponsibly. At the age of 15 I tried to take my own life, and then again at 17," she added.

"I was being abused and I didn't know what was going on and I was trying to escape that."

Becky's parents didn't recognise any warning signs, many don't.

As part of the UK's National Crime Agency's strategy to prevent this crime, as well as pursuing the criminals, it is helping train teachers in schools to educate children about the risks online, and how to navigate the dangers.  

But the government's greatest chance to protect the innocent is with its Online Safety Bill. Their big opportunity to regulate social media. Those who've read the plans, don't think it will do enough.

 The NSPCC's head of child safety online said: "We are seeing a tsunami of inherently preventable harm against children.

"Child abuse image offences and grooming offences at record levels and the Online Safety Bill needs to be strengthened and better respond to the dynamics of child sexual abuse and the scale and extent of harm."

We went to the government for comment on this and got a response from Home Secretary Priti Patel.

“The sexual abuse and exploitation of children online is a disgusting crime and I am determined to do all within my power to help stamp it out and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice," she said.

"This report from the Internet Watch Foundation will help our law enforcement agencies understand the changing nature of online child abuse as the lines are increasingly blurred between children’s physical and digital lives. 

"The government’s Online Safety Bill will ensure that technology companies are held accountable for keeping children safe online and we will impose a powerful range of sanctions if they fail to do so.”

But this is a Bill that has taken four years to get to this stage and it will be several years more before it is actually in place and doing the job it needs to. In the meantime, more childhoods are being caught and lost in the net. 

How you can keep your children safe online:

The NSPCC recommends setting up parental controls at home, which allow you to block and filter upsetting or inappropriate content. They work across your WiFi, phone network, individual apps and devices.

Parental controls can help parents or carers plan what time of day their child goes online and how long for, manage the content different family members can see, and create content filters to block apps that may have inappropriate content.

Where to get support:

Whether you're an online expert or you're not sure where to start, the NSPCC's tools and advice can help you keep your child safe.

A website for parents about life online.

A website from National Crime Agency's CEOP Command about keeping children and young people safe on the internet.