Newborns and toddlers are among the worst victims of online sexual abuse, with the amount of the most extreme material doubling in the past two years, a new report has found.
In 2022, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) took action to remove or block 51,369 web pages containing Category A child sexual abuse material.
The amount of extreme content has doubled since 2020 when the IWF found 20,050 pages of Category A abusive content. In 2022, the total number of URLs containing such extreme abuse is greater than ever before for the group.
Category A is the most severe type of imagery and includes the worst types of sexual abuse.
The report found that the younger the children involved, the more extreme the abuse was likely to be. Of the images found of children under the age of two, 81% were Category A abuse.
In comparison, 50% of the material was about children ages 3 to 6, 20% was about children ages 7 to 10, and 17% was about children ages 11 to 13.
IWF chief executive Susie Hargreaves OBE told Sky News their analysts were seeing more and more children being abused – and they were getting younger.
“12 years later, I’m still appalled that the worst abuse happens to children from newborn to 2 years old. Those are the most vulnerable children, who have absolutely no chance to protect themselves, being preyed on and abused by adults,” she said.
“People need to realize this is a very serious nuisance.”
Proportionally, Category A material now accounts for 20% of all content seen by the IWF — up from 18% in 2021 and 17% in 2020. The organization both accepts reports from the public and actively searches for content.
‘A lot of people don’t know they’re being filmed’
Many of these children didn’t even realize they were being filmed, the IWF said, saying the amount of selfie content had increased, showing children being coerced into action by remote abusers.
Ms Hargreaves wrote in the report: “We’ve been careful not to describe in detail what we saw because we didn’t want to upset people, but we’ve come to believe we have to start being more open and honest about what we’ve found. The level of abuse because the public needs to realize that we are talking about seven year olds, naked…directed and coerced by nasty, manipulative people.”
She told Sky News that while the organization did not pass judgment on wider pornography, it would be wrong to label the images “child pornography”.
“It doesn’t help that people call it … ‘child porn’ because it minimizes the impact of the abuse on these children,” she said.
Far from being a victimless crime, she urged people to remember that there were real children at the heart of this incident.
She said she once met a “very brave survivor” who was rescued at the age of 12 and is now 20.
“Someone approached her at the mall and said, ‘I’ve seen your pictures online,'” she said. “She said to me, ‘I feel physically scared every day’.
“So let’s just say, this is abuse of the most vulnerable children and we should protect them.”
hidden in plain sight’
In 2022, the organization evaluates a webpage every 90 seconds — every two minutes, the webpage reveals that a child has been sexually abused.
Criminals are commercializing the sexual abuse and exploitation of children – but it’s no longer limited to the darknet.
Rosa*, Internet Content Analyst, IWF, “It’s troubling that the facts on these sites are so serious. Child sexual abuse is treated like a commodity on these sites,” he said.
She added: “People now have Class A material just one click away. It’s a public safety issue. This kind of extreme material is no longer in the creepy corners of the internet. It’s obvious.”
But these sites are usually not hosted by mainstream hosting companies, but mainly on the servers of lesser-known companies in Europe or Asia.
Less than 1% of content is kept on servers in the UK, partly because legislation means sites can be taken down in minutes, making them less viable for criminals looking to profit from child abuse online.
But it’s still British children being abused, and criminals forced to host it outside the UK, making it harder to take down.
“These are the kids in the bedroom, and often [analysts] Parents’ voices and families’ voices are heard, so parents may feel they are safe,” Ms Hargreaves said.
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A message to those watching online abuse
Ian Critchley, head of child protection and abuse investigations at the NPCC, said: “The increase in the worst offenses uncovered is deeply disturbing – not only that all internet users are more likely to be exposed to this harmful material, and it has been shown that criminals once again ignored the lifelong harm it caused these children.
“If you’re viewing material like this, please have no doubts – this is not a victimless crime. These are real children.”
He added: “If you’re reading this and you’re concerned about your thoughts and actions, you can stop. The consequences of an offense can last a lifetime. Get help now.”
Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said: “Child sexual abuse is a heinous crime. It is of the utmost importance that perpetrators of this abuse are identified and brought to justice. Internet Watch the foundation’s work critical to tackling online child sexual abuse material and tackling criminals seeking to profit from young people’s suffering.”
“Most importantly, companies need to ensure that things like end-to-end encryption have the necessary security features built in so they don’t turn a blind eye to the abuse taking place on the platform,” he added.
* name changed
If you are concerned about child sexual abuse and would like to find out how to report it, visit Stop Abuse Together or the Internet Watch Foundation.