Today the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) — a charity that assesses and flags child sexual abuse material online — has released the key findings of their 2021 report, and it makes for terrifying reading.
Last year the IWF had to take action on over 250,000 URLs (some of which contained thousands of images and videos), compared to 150,000 in 2020 and 130,000 in 2019. They investigated over 360,000 reports, which is more than they dealt with than in the entire first 15 years of their existence, and found a hugely worrying increase in the number of so-called ‘self-generated images’.
Self-generated images mean that no adult was physically present in the room when the images were taken, usually on a webcam or phone or tablet camera. In 2021 there was a 167% increase in the number of these self-generated images involving 11-13 year olds, and a 235% increase in the number of self-generated images involving 7-10 year olds. This means that in 2021 alone, the IWF found over 170,000 instances of self-generated images of pre-teens, compared to around 60,000 in 2020 and 38,000 in 2019.
Susie Hargreaves, Chief Executive of the IWF, believes that lockdowns are at least partially responsible for these numbers: children were spending far more time alone in their bedrooms with access to devices and parents had no idea that this was enabling grooming on an ‘industrial scale’.
Yet at what point does blissful ignorance become wilful ignorance? Government campaigns such as the recently launched Stop Abuse Together are helpful in that they encourage parents to have difficult conversations with their children about sexual exploitation, but too many parents still continue to give children and teenagers access to devices without supervision, which seems tantamount to neglect. For example, allowing a child to witness violence constitutes a form of abuse, and yet giving children unfiltered access to a smartphone, where they can watch the most graphic violence imaginable, does not.
Last month pop star Billie Eilish bravely spoke out about how watching porn from the age of 11 had “destroyed [her] brain” and “devastated” her views about sex. Somewhat understandably, many people criticised and blamed her parents, but the reality is that over half of 11 year olds have reported seeing pornography, with the true number likely to be much higher. Parental denial is endemic: three-quarters of parents think that their children have not watched pornography, which, as a secondary school teacher, is almost laughable.
Of course we can also reasonably blame lockdowns. According to one US survey, during remote schooling over half of American children spent more than six hours a day in front of a screen, and therefore there were undoubtedly more opportunities for children to be groomed, deceived or extorted online. However, the findings from IWF need to be a wake-up call to parents — we know the dangers of the internet, and therefore it is our responsibility to protect children from those harms. We would never risk giving our children other dangerous substances unsupervised, so why should it be different with technology?