by Kristina Murkett
Thursday, 13
January 2022
Analysis
11:47

Online child sexual abuse images triple during lockdown

A new report makes for grim reading
by Kristina Murkett
Credit: Getty

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?

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David Morley
David Morley
4 months ago

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.

Just to be clear – are the figures given for this the numbers of images taken by children of themselves (presumably naked, or part naked) at the instigation of an adult who was grooming them for that purpose?
That is, it does not include images being exchanged by children of roughly the same age.
I’m not saying that the latter are not of concern, but they are different to the former.
When this is not clear, there is always a concern that numbers are being inflated by leaving readers to assume the worst case.

Alan B
Alan B
4 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I presume they were taken by adult “groomers” and wound up on p*rn sites? If the photos were shared between children I would be aghast to find that any third party (including this watchdog group) could access them.

David Morley
David Morley
4 months ago
Reply to  Alan B

It just isn’t clear from the article. And I think it needs to be. The images seem to have been generated by the children themselves. So what was the context?
There appears to have been a “report” of some kind to the organisation. But did this include parents or teachers reporting activity between children and adolescents, in which adults were not actually involved?

Last edited 4 months ago by David Morley
GA Woolley
GA Woolley
4 months ago

Of course we can also reasonably blame lockdowns.’ Really? I guess that more also takes place in the evenings, and in school holidays. Does that mean we should also ‘blame’ evenings and school holidays?

Michael K
Michael K
3 months ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

Obviously lockdowns are a perfectly normal thing to do in Western society, and they couldn’t possibly cause or worsen any psychological issues. That is excluding depression, anxiety disorders, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases – but that’s off-topic.

David Morley
David Morley
4 months ago

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.

It’s not quite clear in what sense Ms Eilish’s brain has been destroyed, but this habit of blaming a cause outside of oneself for one’s own hang ups and psychological problems is nothing new.
We’ve all met messed up people, they all have theories as to why they are messed up, from bad parents to the patriarchy, but that is no proof they are right.
Perhaps Ms Eilish is just struggling with an encounter with some of the darker aspects of her own sexuality, and is having a hard job accepting them.

Michael K
Michael K
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Well, it has been said that if you stare into a porn movie for too long, the porn movie eventually stares back.

David Morley
David Morley
4 months ago

Re the headline – if the viewing of all pornography tripled during the lockdown (seems likely), this is complete non-news.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
4 months ago

No doubt we’ll find out in 10-20 years, or more, all the kids that have been groomed and abused using the internet. Then they’ll decide the harm is so great that people have to be identifiable on social media.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Isn’t that already in the works?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Yeah but it’s technically difficult to guarantee. Like money laundering, it’s easy to get round anonymity rules – they’re just for the plebs who won’t break the law and stupid criminals.

Last edited 4 months ago by Ian Stewart
Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

The technical problems are immense, but this won’t stop ministers from pushing it. It’s the kind of idea that will tick a lot of boxes. Some private sector companies will over promise government with a solution that won’t work and make a lot of money while the government will claim to be combatting all kinds of online crimes. Meanwhile, the subservient sections of the press will laud it as the right thing to do, even if it it doesn’t fix the problems and merely pushes them even further underground.

Michael K
Michael K
3 months ago

Yeah well maybe we shouldn’t be locking people in for weeks to protect them from “the sniffles” and then wonder why everything is going down the drain. If staying locked in at home was such a fun thing to do, we would have made a yearly holiday out of it long ago.
On a side note, nobody should take pop stars’ comments on life seriously. They don’t live in the real world, and they’re usually just throwing temper tantrums to get attention. Basically there’s nobody who could give worse advice out there.

Andrew D
Andrew D
4 months ago

Yet more evidence of the harm wrought by lockdown, far greater than that caused by the virus. Also further evidence, if it were needed, of man’s depravity.
The anti-gun lobby argues that the proliferation of gun violence in the US is a consequence of the proliferation of guns. This is (to me) self-evident. In the light of this article, what’s worse – to give a child a smart phone, or an AK47?

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

If it is fitted with a full magazine and the safety lever mid-position, then the AK47 is by far the worst.

Andrew D
Andrew D
4 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

My question was rhetorical…

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
4 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

You can see someone using a gun to shoot just people in range….a smartphone has limitless potential and you won’t know it’s damage your kids.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I grew up on a farm in the 1940’s, from memory largely unsupervised, where the vehicles, guns, blades, tools, livestock and powered implements had “limitless potential” for serious damage to kids. I and all my schoolmates got loads of bites, stings, cuts, kicks and bruises but we all survived just fine. Phones ?? ……. are you kidding?

David Morley
David Morley
4 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Ahh – but perhaps you were free of that most dangerous of all risks to children – over anxious parents.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
4 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

You’re not aware of the thousands of cases of abuse just by one individual to kids all over the world using their smartphones, some of whom subsequently committed suicide? Yeah guns are much more harmful!
Or… do you think those kids deserved it? Some kind of Darwinian weeding out of the innocent and naive?

Last edited 4 months ago by Ian Stewart
Gordon Black
Gordon Black
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

‎All children are brought into this world innocent and naive. I and my peers had authoritative, inculcating and disciplining fathers, grandfathers and male primary school teachers: without these guides and role models children tragically remain vulnerable.

Michael K
Michael K
3 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Both are terrible. The AK47 kills your body, while the smartphone kills your soul.