Content Notice: Please be aware that this blog contains materials that invoke sensitive issues, including but not limited to child sexual abuse, trafficking, exploitation, kidnapping, ongoing childhood trauma and violence. Given the sensitive nature of these issues, we recognize that ChildFund’s work to combat the online sexual exploitation and abuse of children may be difficult to read about and engage with. Below are links to resources you may find helpful.
In November 2022, a Virginia law enforcement officer drove to California and abducted a 15-year-old girl from her home after murdering three of her relatives. The girl was rescued physically unharmed, but with emotional scars that will last a lifetime.
Reports later flooded in that the officer, Austin Lee Edwards, had posed as a 17-year-old boy on the internet to gain the girl’s trust. When he began to demand explicit photos of her, she blocked him, prompting the perpetrator to drive across the country and commit his crimes.
Stories like these belong in thriller movies, not in our own world, and certainly not anywhere near our own children. But as more and more young people use the internet – and as more and more predators seek protection from the consequences of their behavior behind a screen, where they are able not only to gain access to children but also to freely upload and share imagery of their abuse with other criminals – young people become alarmingly vulnerable to those who would exploit and abuse them.
In fact, the amount of child sexual abuse materials online has exploded in recent years, making online sexual abuse one of the world’s fastest growing crimes. More than 84.9 million images, videos and other content featuring children in suspected situations of sexual exploitation and abuse were submitted to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2021. That marks a 73% increase in reports when compared to 2019.
Online sexual exploitation and abuse of children occurs in many different forms, but the common thread undergirding them all is that a child is abused somewhere in the process.
Of course, we live in a digital age in which access to the internet is critical for children’s participation in modern life – and the internet presents many positive opportunities for young people. How can we ensure that children experience the benefits of the internet while protecting them from its risks, like online sexual exploitation and abuse? As the world celebrates Safer Internet Day on February 7, we can begin by understanding the different types of online abuse that can occur and how we can recognize, prevent and fight it.
Even the youngest children can become victims of sexual abuse online. Infants, toddlers and children under the age of 10, who must depend on the adults around them for care and can do very little to advocate for themselves, are extremely vulnerable to those in their physical space who would harm them – often someone in their own family or someone who is close to the family. Perpetrators who have physical access to a young child might produce exploitative photographs or videos of the child, or even of them abusing the child, to upload and share on the internet. Even if the abuse stops, these photos and videos can remain online indefinitely, retraumatizing the child for years. Tech companies have the capability to take down this child sexual abuse imagery instantly, but so far there are no requirements for them to proactively do so.
In some parts of the world, extreme poverty drives parents and caregivers themselves to agree to their children’s online sexual abuse in exchange for money. For example, a predator might pay a parent a sum of money to have their child undress in front of a camera. Because some parents do not fully understand the consequences of this kind of imagery of their child existing indefinitely on the internet – and because they are so desperate for financial resources – they are sometimes complicit in their children’s online sexual abuse.
As children grow, they are more and more likely to go online themselves, accessing the internet to complete schoolwork, play video games and chat with friends. The problem is that the “friends” children make online may not always be as friendly as they seem.
Perpetrators of online sexual exploitation and abuse use the same digital platforms that children use – social media messaging tools, gaming apps and consoles – to gain access to children. These adults may misrepresent their identities, portraying an image of themselves as younger or of a different gender. They then use grooming techniques to gain the child’s trust and, eventually, to exploit them. The perpetrator may share sexually explicit content with the child and request explicit content from the child in return, encouraging them to mimic what they see.
By the time the child begins to realize that something not quite right is happening, the perpetrator has already begun leveraging fear and shame in an attempt to keep the child quiet about the situation. They may even threaten to share explicit content that the child has already sent them, a kind of exploitation known as sextortion.
According to Thorn, an organization dedicated to ending the sexual exploitation of children online:
“Grooming relies on exploiting insecurities and trust, and in an online setting trust can be built through a variety of methods. Children are able to build new relationships that are completely decontextualized from every other aspect of their lives. Any content produced as a result of grooming can then be used to threaten and blackmail a child, playing on a child’s fear of getting in trouble, to force the victim into performing more acts which can become increasingly explicit.”
In some cases – as in the story of the Virginia law enforcement officer – grooming can lead to offline harm when perpetrators seek to meet up with children in real life. Children then become vulnerable to kidnapping, child trafficking and other crimes.
For teenagers who have begun dating, the perpetrator isn’t always a stranger. Sometimes a current or former intimate partner can threaten to share explicit photos or videos in an effort to harass, embarrass and control them.
Even if they have not been victims of sextortion, most teenagers have been exposed to harassing, unsolicited or non-consensual sexual interactions online, such as receiving explicit photos or videos from peers.
The simple truth is that technology has made it easier to harm kids. At the same time, every child has a right to use the internet safely and to participate fully in digital tools. How can we find the balance between allowing children to enjoy the benefits of the internet while taking action to mitigate its risks?
Children in Cambodia participate in a ChildFund program about online safety.
ChildFund works in communities around the world to protect children online, often through education. We support kids, their parents and caregivers, and their communities to understand the digital risks children face and how they can protect themselves. We also advocate at the local, state and national levels for better protections for children online.
Online sexual exploitation and abuse can happen to any child at any age. The more we know about it, the better we can understand how to protect children online – on Safer Internet Day and every day.