Content Notice: Please be aware that the #TakeItDown campaign contains materials that invoke sensitive issues, including but not limited to child sexual abuse, trafficking, exploitation, kidnapping, suicide attempts, ongoing childhood trauma and violence. Given the sensitive nature of these issues, we recognize that it may be difficult for you to hear about and engage with the campaign and ChildFund’s broader work to combat the online sexual exploitation and abuse of children. We want to ensure that we are doing everything we can to support your well-being. Below are links to resources you may find helpful.
In the first phase of the Take It Down campaign, we’ll be spreading the word to parents, caregivers, older siblings – anyone who cares about children – about a devastating threat to child well-being worldwide: the out-of-control spread of material online that depicts the sexual exploitation and abuse of children of all ages, even the youngest. We’ll also highlight what tech companies could and should be doing to protect children online, and why they aren’t. And we’ll discuss how government regulation could result in a critical first step toward ending this horrible crime: getting child sexual abuse materials removed from the internet.
In the second phase, we will advocate for government regulation as a solution to this horrible problem. We want the U.S. government to enact comprehensive federal laws that require tech companies – such as search engines, gaming companies and social media sites – to …
If you don’t know who the elected official is for where you live, you can find out using this website: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials. The website lists members’ office addresses, office phone numbers and official websites where you can submit a message. Please see below for an example email that you can use to create your own message.
#TakeItDown Campaign – Example email to policymakers
Dear [elected official]:
As a [parent/young adult/US citizen/etc.], I am deeply concerned about how the lack of accountability from technology companies is affecting [my] children's online safety and well-being. While companies in the U.S are legally required to report child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) once they’ve been made aware of them, they’re not required to proactively search for them. And there is no punishment for platforms that don't remove CSAM quickly. As a result, sexual exploitation of children online has exploded. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipline receives 80,000 reports of suspected CSAM every day, with a staggering 31.9 million reports in 2022. The U.S. is now one of the global leaders in hosting CSAM URLs, accounting for 15% of the global total.
According to a recent RAINN and YouGov survey, 82% of caregivers feel that technology and social media companies should do more to combat the viewing and creation of CSAM. So, that’s why I’m writing to you today in support of the bipartisan STOP CSAM Act (S.1199), which would crack down on the proliferation of child sexual abuse material online, support survivors and victims of CSAM, and increase accountability and transparency for online platforms. Will you work together with your colleagues in Congress to take action to better protect children online and pass the STOP CSAM Act?
Child sexual abuse materials, referred to as CSAM, are images, videos, livestreams and other content that depict the sexual abuse or exploitation of children. In the past, you may have heard these materials referred to as “child pornography.” But this term doesn’t capture the true nature of the issue – the sexual abuse of children is a crime, and the depiction of it retraumatizes survivors long after the physical abuse has ended.
The production of these materials is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the world, and even the youngest children are not safe. In fact, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 58% of victims in reported materials are under the age of 12.
Tech companies are passively complicit in this crisis because there is little oversight on how they design and run their online platforms or how they ensure their safety for all users – including children.
It grew as the internet grew. In the late 1980s, child sexual abuse material was all but eliminated. New laws and increased prosecution made it simply too risky to possess or distribute through the postal service. Then came the internet – the perfect environment for an explosion in child sexual abuse imagery and the criminal activities of those who produce, consume and distribute it. With cheap storage and recording devices, high-speed broadband and live-streaming, end-to-end encryption and virtual private networks, the amount of child sexual abuse material living on the internet is higher than ever.
And tech companies are not doing enough to prevent their platforms from being used by perpetrators to create and distribute child sexual abuse materials.
Not really. Most tech companies have mechanisms that rely upon their users to report child sexual abuse material, and there are laws that require them to take it down once they are made aware of this material. But there are no laws that require tech companies to proactively search for, detect and promptly remove child sexual abuse material. There are also no standards for how tech companies should address child sexual abuse material on their platforms and no ramifications for failure to find and remove these materials quickly. As a result, the material often lives on these platforms indefinitely, retraumatizing children for years.
Proactively searching for and detecting child sexual abuse materials costs tech companies time, money and resources. But tech does have the capability to instantly remove offending or illegal content, and they do so already with copyright-protected music – there are financial consequences for not protecting the publishing rights of songs. They should do the same to uphold children’s rights. We’ve waited years for them to “do the right thing.” It’s time for Congress to take action to help protect children.
This is not an either-or solution. In fact, child sexual abuse material’s very presence online is abusive, ready to retraumatize children again and again indefinitely. Prevention and response go hand in hand – you need both to address a complex issue like the online sexual exploitation and abuse of children.
Learn more about how ChildFund helps protect children online here.
It’s true that the dark web is a vast home for child sexual abuse materials. More investment in specialized law enforcement is required to arrest perpetrators of online child sexual exploitation and shut down child exploitation rings on the dark web.
But plenty of child sexual abuse materials still exist on mainstream platforms. In fact, more than 31.9 million reports of content featuring children in suspected situations of sexual exploitation and abuse were submitted to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2022, marking a 73% increase in reports compared to 2019. These were only the materials reported – and they all came from mainstream tech platforms. Because there are no laws in place that require tech companies to proactively search for, detect and remove child sexual abuse material, this material often lives on these platforms indefinitely and retraumatizes victims for years. Meaningful regulation would make a huge difference.
There are new technologies that will maintain users’ privacy while still allowing for the detection and removal of child sexual abuse materials, so the privacy excuse doesn’t wash. On the other hand, laws passed to strengthen tech’s responsibilities in reporting and removing child sexual abuse materials would prioritize children’s privacy rights.
Parents play an important role and have a responsibility to help their children learn about digital safety. But the scope of the problem is so much bigger than what parents can reasonably manage, especially with how accessible the internet has become. Parents also lack access to the tools they need to adequately protect their children and are often left confused and unaware of the risks to their children, particularly as these risks continue to evolve as new technologies and platforms develop – too fast for most laypeople to keep up.
Online sexual exploitation and abuse of children is a systemic issue, and changing the requirements and standards for how tech companies – both present and future – operate will have a much bigger impact than working exclusively with parents.
Online sexual exploitation and abuse of children1, also known as OSEAC, and refers to any technology-facilitated grooming, sextortion, production and distribution of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) and livestreaming of abusive acts. The two factors common among all the different forms are that they are sexually exploitative or abusive in nature and they have some connection to the internet.
For example, online grooming (also sometimes referred to as “online enticement”) is a tactic used by perpetrators to establish and build a trusting relationship with a child via the internet or other digital technologies to manipulate, exploit and abuse them online and/or offline. Sometimes perpetrators pretend to be children themselves to more easily manipulate the children they are targeting. Too often, children – including the youngest children – are victimized by adults they know who post images, videos and livestreams of their sexual abuse online.
Another form of online sexual exploitation and abuse is sextortion. Sextortion involves perpetrators threatening to expose sexual images of a child to pressure that child to do something to prevent this exposure – it could be producing additional images, engaging in sexual acts or sending money to the perpetrator.
Like most forms of violence against children, we don’t know how many children are victimized because online sexual exploitation and abuse so often go unreported. But recent research has raised the alarm that this is a widespread and exponentially growing problem. Globally, 57% of girls and 48% of boys have experienced at least one form of online sexual harm. Children in the U.S. also experience online sexual abuse at alarming rates: In fact, the U.S. accounted for 15% of the global total number of URLs that host child sexual abuse materials in 2022.
All children are at risk of experiencing online sexual harm. As with every form of abuse, there are certain vulnerabilities that raise children’s risk for online sexual exploitation and abuse. But research has shown that it can affect all children no matter their age, gender, economic status, geographic location or ability. The profile of perpetrators also varies. However, we know that much of the illegal behavior is perpetrated by people who are familiar to the child, including family members.
There are great resources available to help parents better understand online risks, how to use parental controls and how to have honest, supportive and nonjudgmental conversations with your child about their activities online, the risks they may face and the steps they can take to protect themselves online.
Thorn has created excellent resources for parents, including discussion guides and conversation starters, information on where to find support if your child has engaged in risky behavior or has experienced harm, and self-care resources.
There are also resources for children that you can use to build up your child’s self-protection skills. If you have a younger child, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (MCMEC) has an excellent online safety program for children called NetSmartz. It includes age-appropriate videos, activities and discussion guides to help children understand risks and learn how to protect themselves online. For adolescents, Thorn’s NOFILTR includes resources, quizzes and advice, all specifically designed with an authentic youth voice.
Please know that you are not alone and that it is not your fault. There are a variety of resources and services available to you if you have experienced online sexual exploitation and abuse:
You can also report your experiences to formal authorities via NCMEC’s CyberTipline. Your report will be reviewed by NCMEC and shared with law enforcement, who may decide to investigate your case.
ChildFund places a special emphasis on child protection throughout our approach because we recognize that violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect can reverse a child’s developmental gains in an instant. We are already working to protect children from violence at home, at school and within their communities. Online child protection is an extension of this work.
Internet access has spread rapidly, especially over the last decade, and more and more children are going online for the first time each day. Internet access provides a number of benefits to children’s and young people’s development, including access to education and skill-building resources, health and other services, opportunities to raise their voice on issues they care about, and tools to connect with their peers and family members. But it also poses unique risks that need to be understood and mitigated to support their ability to safely realize these benefits.
Many of our country offices have worked to prevent and combat online sexual exploitation and abuse for years. However, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced that online sexual exploitation and abuse was an issue we needed to address more holistically across the organization. During a rapid assessment, we heard from numerous country offices that they were becoming increasingly concerned about online risks as children spent longer amounts of time online to attend classes, socialize with their friends and play.
And this concern has been confirmed by data over and over again. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which receives and reviews global reports made to their CyberTipline, documented a 73% increase in the number of reports it received in 2021 versus 2019. In response, ChildFund has invested in building our internal expertise, uplifting and expanding our country offices’ work, developing our organizational approach and building key relationships with peer organizations, government officials, the private sector and global, regional and national networks. Our growth and dedication to this issue over the past few years is affirmed in our 2030 strategy, Growing Connections, which identified online sexual exploitation and abuse of children as a priority issue. Our ambition is that every country office will incorporate online protection into their broader child protection efforts, and we will continue to build ChildFund’s reputation as a leader on ending violence against children no matter where it occurs.
In our 2030 Strategy, Growing Connections, ChildFund identified online sexual exploitation and abuse of children (OSEAC) as a priority issue for the organization. In response, we formed a Preventing Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children Strategic Pathway Team made up of technical experts from ChildFund’s international office and country offices across the Africa, Asia and Americas regions. The team is tasked with developing our organizational approach to online sexual exploitation and abuse and has developed an organizational theory of change, minimum standards, a results framework and an activity guide. These materials will serve as a support and guide to their efforts and help us to measure our impact.
Meanwhile, our country offices have continued to develop and grow their programmatic and advocacy efforts. In 2022, our Kenya team received a $1 million grant from the End Violence Fund to lead a three-year project, Safe CLICS, to strengthen Kenyan government agencies’ capacity to prevent and respond to OSEAC, improve children’s self-protection skills with the support of caregivers and communities, strengthen public awareness and improve connections to reporting and referral services. The Ecuador team launched its #NaveguemosSeguros (Let’s Navigate Safely) campaign and website, which includes practical tools, conversation guides and games aimed at educating teachers, caregivers, children and youth about online risks. The Philippines team, in addition to its #ShutDownOSEAC campaign that led to national policy change, has been leading a child and youth training program that supports participants in becoming “OSEAC Warriors” who educate their peers about online safety. We are also doing great work in Mexico, Bolivia, Indonesia and Guatemala, and many other country offices are launching new efforts.
In the U.S., we received funding to found and lead the first-ever U.S. government advocacy coalition focused on online sexual exploitation and abuse. Over the past year, we have cultivated relationships with peer organizations to bring together the most prominent civil society leaders on this issue to collaborate and coordinate efforts to bring about change. Together we are pushing Congress and the administration to prioritize ending online sexual exploitation and abuse and take action to better protect children online.
At the global level, we have worked closely with the ChildFund Alliance Secretariat to develop and support the Web Safe and Wise: Creating a Better Digital World With Children campaign. Web Safe and Wise is focused on pushing for positive policy change in all the countries where we work to ensure that governments address the risks children face online. The campaign also aims to empower children and young people to become effective digital citizens so that they can successfully seize positive opportunities available in the online environment while successfully navigating and avoiding potential risks. This includes creating opportunities for children and youth to share their experiences and solutions. As such, the Secretariat is establishing a Children’s Advisory Council comprising child and youth members who will help determine the direction and implementation of the campaign.
The #TakeItDown campaign is one of many initiatives that we are engaging in to stop the online sexual exploitation and abuse of children globally. The focus and scope of the #TakeItDown campaign is the U.S., and its goal is to push U.S. government policymakers to take action to hold U.S.-based technology companies accountable for keeping their platforms and services safe for children. The campaign’s policy asks are informed by our U.S. advocacy efforts, including our leadership of the Ending OSEAC Coalition, which includes members from prominent organizations like ECPAT, IJM, Thorn and NCMEC, but also by our work globally.
Our work to develop #TakeItDown is happening alongside our ongoing support for the Alliance’s Web Safe and Wise campaign. It is not intended to be a substitute for Web Safe and Wise, which has a broader, global focus, but rather is an interpretation of it for a U.S. audience. We believe the two efforts are well-aligned and supportive of one another. Both have a central aim of motivating policymakers to take action to prioritize children’s online safety, and we believe that successful policy change in the U.S. will have positive implications for children’s safety around the world.