Online sexual abuse of children is surging, but we can stop it

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By Danielle Lilly, senior policy adviser for U.S. government Posted on 02/03/2022

 This article was originally published in Devex on February 2, 2022.

While COVID-19 persists as a global threat, many children continue to be more reliant than ever on the internet for school, recreation, and social connection. Alongside this increased use of online technology, reports of online sexual abuse of children, or OSEAC, have exploded. 

It is estimated that OSEAC has increased by 422% over the last decade and a half, with an alarming uptick in recent years, particularly since the pandemic began. From 2019 to 2020, the U.S.’s National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received 21.7 million reports of child sexual abuse materials, including 65.4 million photographs, videos and files, up from 16.9 million reports the previous year, and that number continues to grow. Though NCMEC is based in the U.S., these tips are for images and materials found globally, and since many countries have either limited or no such reporting mechanism for online abuse, this number is likely much lower than the true worldwide total.

Boys on computer in Guatemala 500

Children watch online videos at a ChildFund-supported computer lab in Guatemala. Photo by Jake Lyell.

Children suffer a range of consequences due to OSEAC, from the negative impacts on their psychosocial wellbeing and development to the increased risk of experiencing other types of violence and abuse, including child trafficking. In fact, there has been a 600% increase in the number of human trafficking cases perpetrated through internet use. 

This rising threat can be attributed to several factors – the rise of social media coupled with the lack of privacy protections online, and most recently, COVID-19, which spurred a 50% increase in internet use amongst children aged 6-12 in the U.S. alone

In Kenya, for example, more than 15 million children could not attend in-person school during lockdowns and had to go online to learn, which has seemingly had a direct impact on the number of OSEAC cases there.

While global and country-specific data on who is most at risk is limited, ChildFund’s Senior Child Protection Advisor Betsy Sherwood said telling qualitative data exists. “Anecdotally, we do know it’s very young children, and often times [a direct family member] is the one generating the exploitative images.”

The risk tends to be higher within impoverished households who may have internet access but lack the resources and education around internet safety. However, OSEAC is increasing everywhere – not just in poor, urban hotspots. Every child who goes online could be at risk.

Perpetrators have exploited this unprecedented global crisis to gain access to children at an alarming rate. The methods they use to target children are outpacing authorities’ abilities to keep up. In order to combat this rising threat to children everywhere, there must be a concerted and collective effort by governments, policymakers, technology leaders, non-government organizations, parents and the general public. 

How to tackle OSEAC

Many governments around the world are taking positive actions to respond to this crisis and keep children safe online. The U.K., for example, recently adopted the Age Appropriate Design Code requiring all online platforms children might use to follow stronger child data protection standards. In Kenya, the government has developed the National Plan of Action on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in order to combat the rising threat of OSEAC. The Philippines, considered a hotspot of child trafficking and online abuse, has also made strides to address the OSEAC crisis including introducing OSEAC-related legislation to improve reporting mechanisms so that law enforcement can better respond.  

The U.S., however, is quickly falling behind. Despite recent discourse around claims that social media platforms purposefully target young users in negative ways, the 117th Congress has yet to pass substantive legislation. With many of the most influential tech companies based in the U.S. but with worldwide reach, this inaction to formally hold companies accountable will have global implications. 

To push Congress to act, ChildFund has, over the past year, brought together a wide variety of organizations leading the fight against OSEAC into one space to identify the most pressing risks to children and collectively advocate Congress and the administration to enact change. To support these efforts, ChildFund collaborated with these partners to conduct an extensive policy mapping project and draft a policy agenda. The mapping project’s resulting report, Protecting Children Online through Policy, produced an outline of progress made to address children’s online safety, but also highlighted areas that need improvement, like the need for updated regulations and increased funding for critical OSEAC-related programs. By passing strong and definitive legislation, U.S. tech companies will have to face this challenge and build consensus on how to combat this rising risk to children, setting the precedent for others in the industry to follow.

Read ChildFund’s OSEAC Mapping Report Here

To their credit, many tech companies have already made important strides forward. Google, Apple, TikTok, and others have released plans on how they are updating their practices to better protect children. In Kenya, Google has begun funding an online safety project with the Communications Authority of Kenya, telecom leaders, and civil society organizations to deliver the first comprehensive campaign of its kind. Facebook was supportive of the #ShutdownOSEC campaign in the Philippines and helped create internet safety materials and activities for mass distribution to children, youth and their families. While these efforts are a start, they are merely a scratch on the surface of the OSEAC problem. 

In order to stop OSEAC for good, non-profit actors, governments, and the private sector must work closely with tech companies to keep up with this rapidly changing and ever-increasing challenge. By working together, we have a pathway towards improving the U.S.’s -- and the world’s -- OSEAC response, leading the way to eradicating OSEAC altogether. 

On Safer Internet Day, Feb 8, join ChildFund in helping to stop OSEAC.