'He stole my child': Children as young as three manipulated into creating sexual imagery

Warning: This report contains themes some readers may find distressing.

Over the past 10 years, I have reported from around the world numerous times about the horrors of child abuse, and in recent years, about the evolution of the crime online.

I have covered the sentencing of offenders, interviewed their young and innocent victims, talked to special police investigators who work to try and contain the problem and witnessed first-hand the devastation the crime can cause.

An expert in child exploitation recently said to me: "Law enforcement cannot arrest its way out of this problem."

It is a sobering but true fact. This is a crime that can happen anywhere in the UK, inside any home, in any bedroom, to any child.

According to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), the rate this crime is increasing grows year on year and the level of depravation does too.

This month, I met "Danielle." We cannot use her real name, nor would we want to.

She has been a victim of a sex crime, at the age of 12, and she told me: "There are over 15 girls that I know that have gone through it, and that is only in my year group."

Danielle was groomed online by a paedophile in America who pretended to be someone else. She thought he was a 14-year-old boy from Manchester when she met him on Snapchat.

Over six months, he coerced and blackmailed her into taking sexually explicit images of herself.

"I was pulling my phone out and messaging him at lunchtime, at break time, the minute I woke up, just before I went to bed. You want their attention. You sort of get addicted to them.

"They definitely isolate you... And the isolation, that's what gives them the ultimate power over you, the control."

The whole time we chat, Danielle fiddles with her sleeves, hides her hands and moves her feet around. There is a nervousness to how she behaves. She has a fear and anxiety with people she doesn't know.

A once sporty, energetic schoolgirl, who did every activity after school she could now does none. Her whole character has changed, her mum says.

It takes her three hours to do her make-up and get ready every day because the 'front' she now has to put on in public has to be right.

"She was self-harming after it happened. She missed a whole term of school. She needs a psychologist now," her mum "Mary" told me.

She couldn't get that help on the NHS. The family has had to pay privately for the support Danielle needed. Mary is desperate for other parents to realise the risks.

"I didn't know this could happen. We'd put parental settings on her phone. We'd made sure the content was appropriate for her age, but I didn't know just how vulnerable children are online," Mary added.

She told me how badly their local police force handled the situation, how her daughter's school made her feel like the criminal but when I asked her what she struggles to deal with most since it happened, she broke down.

"He stole my child. She was my little girl. They don't care. They'd do it to anyone's child," Mary said.

"He stole my child. She was my little girl. They don't care. They'd do it to anyone's child," Mary - who we have kept anonymous - said. Credit: ITV News

That is the devastation that can be caused by online child exploitation.

There is a small but specialist team of police investigators in the UK that work to try and find offenders, monitor the content created and watch the trends within the crime that are emerging. I met "Geoff" who works within the unit.

“No-one knows exactly what I do, day to day," he said. That is perhaps understandable. What Geoff sees day in, day out is extremely difficult, but he says it is worth it because there are "tangible" results.

He is often responsible for helping to safeguard a child and keep them away from offenders.

Despite that, he is staggered by the speed of change.

"We are seeing offenders with half a million-plus images on their devices. Images they might have made themselves or they [made] from another party. The threats that we're seeing has just changed beyond comprehension really. I don't think anyone would have guessed one to two years ago the situation we'd be in now."

There is evidence now that even three to six-year-olds are being manipulated into creating sexual imagery of themselves for offenders, the IWF claims.

"If it's not someone that's known to the child, or within the family, then it could be as simple as that child chatting to someone on a game, on an app," Geoff added.

"Parents don't realise there's a chat function on that game and that can be a way predators make contact with these children, and then move them from that game onto other social media."

This is not a crime hidden on the 'dark web' anymore either. "It is all on social media, it's on open platforms," he told me, "the social media apps we all use, all the time."

There is a small but specialist team of police investigators in the UK that work to try and find offenders. Credit: ITV News

ITV News has also seen a disturbing “handbook” - provided by the Internet Watch Foundation - shared between offenders on social media, that gives advice on how to abuse children, and who to target.

“Get them young, and they're yours forever," the offender writes.

"The concept of being blackmailed becomes deeply ingrained in their subconscious as something normal and acceptable.”

The guide then says: "Once enough material has been gathered to threaten or coerce them, victims may be forced to perform highly degrading and taboo tasks."

The evolution of artificial intelligence is making it even easier for this crime to proliferate, and the imagery more extreme.

"What we're seeing as the norm is increasingly violent imagery, with degradation and torture. On one occasion, we actually said to the AI that we wanted to abuse a child for real and asked it how we could do that," Geoff said.

"The AI told us what to do practically, how to take a child, how to drug [them]. Effectively, you just type what you want. It's text to image."

It is fast becoming a "made-to-order" enterprise.

Simon Bailey used to be the former national police lead for Child Protection in this country - this is what he said to me.

"Technology is now being used to facilitate, to encourage the abuse of children on a scale that's just unimaginable, and we are facing a global epidemic."

He understands the depths offenders will go to.

"People will pay to see a child raped for as little as £10 or £12... It's difficult to comprehend, it's difficult to talk about and actually it's one of those conversations we have to have if we are going to do something meaningful about it," he said.

Simon Bailey used to be the former national police lead for Child Protection in this country. Credit: ITV News

Mr Bailey's is a call to action echoed by many of those in government. We spoke to the Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, who is appealing to the tech companies to take more responsibility.

"I'm the father of a seven-year-old and a 10-year-old. I know how hard it can be to supervise your child all the time. Of course it is difficult," Mr Tugendhat said.

"That's why we rely on tech companies to play their part, to be responsible for the actions that are taking place on their platforms, that are affecting our children.

"This is effectively opening up every single bedroom in the UK, every single kids' safe space in the UK to the potential for abuse."

Parliament did pass the Online Safety Act into law last October, but any real impact won't be felt until next year.

It is a groundbreaking piece of legislation, designed to keep social media platforms in check.

Ofcom is responsible for making those firms adhere to those new rules, and today, under detailed plans they said that tech firms must act to stop their algorithms recommending harmful content to children and put in place robust age-checks to keep them safer.

Consultation begun today and they are making 40 recommendations. If industry doesn’t comply there will be sanctions. The possibility of multi-million pound fines and criminal liability for senior managers among them.

Mark Bunting, Ofcom's director for Online Strategy. Credit: ITV News

I spoke to Mark Bunting, Ofcom's director for online strategy, and asked why implementing the act is taking so long though.

"We're moving as quickly as we can to bring these new rules in. It is important we get it right. They're very complex changes," he said.

There are indeed a number of consultations to do, to get the right codes of practice in place so there is no ambiguity when it comes into force. Agreed. But, in the meantime thousands of children are being exploited, it feels to me like a greater sense of urgency is needed.

"This legal obligaton is a new obligation. We are going to expect significant change from [the tech] industry when the powers come into force," but he ended with: "they don't have to wait for those codes of practice to be finalised." He is correct.

They don’t have to wait for the legislation to come in, they could introduce these measures of their own volition.

The threat to those most vulnerable is undoubtedly there, and growing.

I too am a parent. I have young sons and when I asked the specialist investigator for advice, he told me: "Be open. Don't ban things. Children will always find a way. You don't want them hiding in their rooms keeping things from you. You want to know what they're watching, what they're playing, who they're chatting to."

Protecting what is precious and innocent involves us all.

A Snapchat spokesperson said: "Any sexual exploitation of young people is abhorrent and our hearts go out to the victim in this case. We work in multiple ways to prevent this activity including proactive detection technology and working with police to support investigations.

"We have extra protections for under 18s, including pop-up warnings if they are contacted by someone they don’t know and a dedicated reporting button if someone threatens to leak sexual content. Our parental tools allow parents to see who their teens are talking to, when a new friend is added and the declared age on their child’s Snapchat account."

If you or a child you know has experienced or witnessed an assault, contact 999 or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000.

There are also a number of charities that offer support to victims:

NSPCC - The charity offers help and support to all children and young people making current and non-recent disclosures of sexual harassment or abuse.

Childline - ChildLine is a counselling service for children and young people.

Rape Crisis (England and Wales) - The charity provides specialist information and support to all those affected by rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and all other forms of sexual violence and abuse.

The Survivors Trust - Rape and sexual abuse can happen to anyone regardless of their age, gender, race, religion, culture or social status. The Survivors Trust offers support to those in need.

Marie Collins Foundation - Is a specialist charity in the UK that supports recovery from technology assisted child sexual abuse. It not only offers direct support, but has useful information and resources for victims, survivors, parents and family.

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