2021 was worst year on record for child sexual abuse online, watchdog finds

13 January 2022, 00:29

IWF said it had seen a "three-fold" increase in self-generated imagery showing seven to 10-year-olds.
IWF said it had seen a "three-fold" increase in self-generated imagery showing seven to 10-year-olds. Picture: Alamy

By Sophie Barnett

Last year was the worst year on record for child sexual abuse online following a "three-fold" increase in self-generated imagery of children aged seven to 10, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has warned.

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The online safety group has released its findings as it called for more support for parents to help spot the danger.

IWF said lockdowns had an impact on the figures, with more people, particularly schoolchildren, spending more time online and as a result may have been more vulnerable to cybercriminals.

In its research, the online safety group said it had seen a "three-fold" increase in self-generated imagery showing seven to 10-year-olds as they were increasingly targeted and groomed by internet predators "on an industrial scale".

Self-generated material is "often made using webcams in a child's own bedroom and then shared online", IWF said.

The group, which finds and helps remove abuse content from the internet, said it investigated 361,000 reports of suspected criminal material in 2021 - more than it dealt with in its entire first 15 years of existence between 1996 and 2011.

IWF chief executive, Susie Hargreaves, said it was vital parents were given more help to enable them to better spot and understand danger online and ultimately protect their children.

She said children are being "targeted, approached, groomed and abuse by criminals on an industrial scale".

"So often, this sexual abuse is happening in children's bedrooms in family homes, with parents being wholly unaware of what is being done to their children by strangers with an internet connection," she said.

"Devices can be an open door into your home, and children can be especially vulnerable to being drawn into these predators' traps.

"We know that if parents have one good conversation with their children it can make all the difference, and could be what stops a lifetime of hurt as a result of this grooming.

"Parents need to be supported in knowing how to broach the topic with their children, and to give them the confidence to call out inappropriate behaviour when they see it.

"We're pleased to see the Government stepping in to help educate parents, and provide them with ways they can help protect children from this growing problem."

Responding to the figures, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, said: "The internet is a vital resource for children to learn and socialise with their peers, but this shocking data shows the unacceptable risks that children can face online.

"Our National Cyber Strategy aims to make the UK the safest place to live and work online; strengthening laws and working across Government, law enforcement and internet providers to fight malicious online activity.

"With the new Stop Abuse Together campaign, we will help empower millions of parents to spot the potential signs of child sexual abuse and take action to keep their children safe.

"All children have a right to be safe from the abhorrent crime of sexual abuse, and we all have a role to play in keeping them safe. Let's stop abuse together."

On Friday, the government is set to launch a new campaign and website called Stop Abuse Together, which will offer guidance to parents on how to spot signs of sexual abuse and help on how to keep them safe.

The latest IWF figures showed that of the 361,000 reports investigated in 2021, 252,000 were confirmed to be URLs containing images or videos of child sexual abuse.

The figures were also a 21% increase in the number of investigated reports compared to 2020.