2021 confirmed as worst year for online child sexual abuse

Last year was the worst year since records of child sexual abuse began online, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) said, as the online safety group called for more support for parents to recognize the danger.

The organization, which finds and removes abusive content online, said it investigated 361,000 reports of suspected criminal material in 2021 – more than it handled in the entire first 15 years of its existence between 1996 and 2011.

The IMF said lockdowns had impacted the numbers as more people, particularly school children, were 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 “triple” increase in self-made images showing seven to 10-year-olds being increasingly targeted and groomed by internet predators “on an industrial scale.”

Self-created material is often created with webcams in children’s rooms and then shared online.

IWF executive director Susie Hargreaves said it’s important that parents get more help so they can better recognize and understand dangers online, and ultimately protect their children.

“Children are targeted, approached, groomed and abused by criminals on an industrial scale,” she said. “So often this sexual abuse takes place in families’ children’s rooms, without the parents knowing what strangers with an internet connection are doing to their children.

“Appliances can be an open door into your home, and children can be particularly vulnerable to being drawn into the traps of these predators. We know that a good conversation between parents and their children can make all the difference and stop a lifetime of hurt from this care.

“Parents need to be supported in raising the issue with their children and giving them the confidence to call out inappropriate behavior when they see it. We are pleased that the government is stepping in to help parents educate themselves and give them ways to protect children from this growing problem.”

On Friday, the government will launch a new campaign and website called Stop Abuse Together, which will help parents spot signs of sexual abuse and help them protect themselves.

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

The numbers also showed a 21% increase in the number of reports examined compared to 2020.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, responded to the figures: “The internet is an important resource for children to learn and socialize with their peers, but this shocking data shows the unacceptable risks children face online. Our national cyber strategy aims to make the UK the safest place to live and work online; Strengthening the law and cooperation between governments, law enforcement and ISPs to combat malicious activity online.

“With the new Stop Abuse Together campaign, we will help empower millions of parents to recognize the potential signs of child sexual abuse and take action to protect their children.

“All children have the right to be safe from the heinous crime of sexual abuse and we all have a role to play in protecting them. Let’s stop the abuse together.”

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