Trigger warning: The following post contains descriptions of child abuse.
Disclaimer: The intent of this article is not to imply that social distancing protocols are not valuable, nor undermine the importance of other COVID-19 safety measures.
A growing amount of data shows that conditions related to COVID-19 have fueled a frightening surge in child sexual abuse worldwide. Measures to contain the pandemic have led to an increase in both demand and supply for the exploitation of children in ways that weren’t completely unforeseen.
In the early stages of the pandemic, many experts raised concerns about the impact COVID-19 could have on child exploitation and abuse. In March, the FBI foreshadowed that “due to school closings as a result of COVID-19, children will potentially have an increased online presence and/or be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk.” Just days earlier, the Internet Watch Foundation warned that “children may be at greater risk of grooming during coronavirus.” And in early April, the UK’s National Crime Agency predicted an increase in online child sexual abuse offenses as lockdowns came into effect worldwide—emphasizing that predators were already using online chat forums to discuss opportunities for abusing children during the crisis.
How has COVID-19 increased both the supply and demand for child exploitation?
A huge takeaway from the INTERPOL report is that our current global condition is starkly different compared to that of a pre-pandemic world. There are key environmental, social, and economic changes COVID-19 has ignited that, in many ways, create the perfect storm for sexual predators.
Among these risk factors discussed in the report include:
-Stay-at-home orders. With millions of people around the world working remotely, many victims are trapped in isolation with their abusers. Restrictions on movement have also fed an increase in demand for child sexual abuse imagery.
-Closure of schools and a shift to virtual learning environments mean children are spending significantly more time online for entertainment, educational, and social purposes.
-Restrictions on international travel, including foreign nationals being able to return to their home countries.
–Limited access to community resources, support, and services—including child care and education personnel who often play a key role in detecting and reporting cases of child sexual exploitation.
INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock shared, “What the report shows is that we are seeing just the tip of a growing iceberg in terms of online child exploitation material. It is important to remember that each photo and video of child sexual abuse is evidence of a real crime involving real children… Each time an image is viewed those children are re-victimized and their very real suffering is prolonged even further.”
Risk factors have also been magnified due to significant obstacles and delays in reporting and policing of child sexual abuse cases, including:
-Specialized human resources that usually address child sexual exploitation and abuse investigations have been reduced and diverted to other activities related to the pandemic.
–Technical constraints of working-from-home have greatly impacted the processes and efficiency of both law enforcement and electronic service providers responsible for reporting cases to law enforcement.
–Court closures leading to delays in processing cases.
The INTERPOL chief added, “We must do more to make sure that the officers investigating these horrific crimes have the support they need, which is where cooperation through INTERPOL plays a vital role in fighting this transnational crime.”
Child abuse content surges in demand around the world
The report also cites that amidst COVID-19, there’s been an increase in the amount of child exploitation materials being shared online in general, and particularly on the darknet. There’s also been a disturbing increase in self-generated images being distributed on the clearnet.
Economic hardships and opportunities for abuse put many young people at risk. More time on the internet allows for more opportunities for grooming by sexual predators, and financial difficulties can lead to desperation to make money through self-generated images or through manipulation, force, and coercion by exploiters and traffickers.
Live-streaming of child sexual exploitation in exchange for payment has boomed in recent years, and the INTERPOL report suggests the demand will likely continue to increase even more due to travel restrictions. INTERPOL also predicts the supply of live-streamed child sexual exploitation and abuse material will rise as children are locked down with facilitators who face increased economic hardships.
The report also included findings of increased discussions on child sexual exploitation and abuse forums on the darknet. Sex offenders with technical expertise to run these secret websites on encrypted networks have more time to create new forums, and have also benefited from more time to organize and distribute their collections of child sexual abuse imagery.
Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, said, “What we are seeing here is the first hard evidence of how the global crisis is affecting the fight against child sexual abuse material. Even though our analysts are working as normal to find this…content, it is staying available for longer, even after they have reported it. This means there is more opportunity for sexual predators to view and share it.”
The IWF also highlighted that the removal of web pages containing online child sexual abuse material has plummeted during COVID-19. Between March 16 and April 15, a time when many areas of the world were in lockdown and feeling the impacts of the pandemic full-force, 1,498 web pages featuring child sexual abuse were shut down—an 89% reduction from the previous month.
Many other organizations are also sharing data related to COVID-19’s impact on child sexual abuse.
At the end of April, the United State’s Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) reported a 22% increase in monthly calls to their National Sexual Assault Hotline from individuals under the age of 18. 67% identified their offender as a family member and 79% said they were currently living with that offender.
Around that same time, the Childline India helpline received more than 92,105 emergency calls relating to children over an 11-day period.
The Philippines’ International Justice Mission also warned that local traffickers were live-streaming an unusually excessive amount of on-demand child sexual abuse and exploitation materials to online offenders—primarily in Western countries.
The India Child Protection Fund emphasized a 95% increase in the consumption of child pornography and a staggering 200% spike in searches for videos featuring children bleeding, choking, tortured, or in pain since the country began lockdown.
As Australia went through lockdowns from April to June, reports of online child sexual exploitation increased by 122%.
Nathan Green, coordinator of Australian Federal Police forensics shared that “the restrictions COVID has brought in have resulted in families being locked up at home, and if in that family there happens to be an abuser, it’s fairly apparent what’s going to happen… Statistically, everybody [in Australia] would know somebody [who is an abuser]… There is a lot of child abuse going on in the community today, and a lot of it is facilitated through technology.”
Another AFP spokesperson confirmed the increase of child abuse material circulating on the darknet, emphasizing that some sites hosting online child sexual abuse material are crashing as a result of an overwhelming increase in internet traffic.
Recommendations for addressing these unique challenges
INTERPOL’s suggestions for combatting child sexual abuse in a world suffering from the effects of COVID-19 include the following:
-Insisting that countries ensure hotlines remain open and adequately staffed, plus consider additional methods for reporting like free texting services or reporting channels integrated on social media, gaming platforms, and messaging services.
–Adapting public services to meet the needs of victims and protect children during the pandemic, including virtual support, justice systems, and medical services.
-Create prevention and awareness campaigns for both victims and legal guardians related to the risk of child sexual abuse and exploitation online.
-Conduct incident mapping exercises for schools to combat child sexual abuse issues online, like “zoom bombing” and other incidents.
The link between porn and child sexual abuse
As if the spread of a global pandemic isn’t tragic enough, both predators and the porn industry are using it as an opportunity to consume, distribute, and profit from exploitative material—including the abuse of children.
While the porn industry claims to champion victims and offer relief for lonely, isolated people impacted by COVID-19, the reality is, they host material that hurts both those involved in its production and those who consume it.
While not all explicit content on the internet features underage victims, the disturbing truth is, it’s out there in staggering numbers—including on mainstream porn sites. And unfortunately, the porn industry exploits and fuels the increase in both supply and demand for child sexual exploitation and abuse.
No person—including and especially a child—should be consumed as sexual fantasy. Take a stand against child sexual exploitation by joining the fight against porn.