New report shows the scale of child sexual exploitation and abuse online is increasing, calling for a stronger collective global response

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  • 2021 Global Threat Assessment report by WeProtect Global Alliance calls for a step change in the global response to worldwide issue
  • COVID-19 has contributed to a significant spike in child sexual exploitation and abuse online
  • Almost 1 in 2 respondents (44%) from the Middle East & North Africa respondents to the global Economist Impact survey experienced sexual harm online at least once during childhoodi
  • Local spokesperson for WeProtect Global Alliance, Lt. Colonel Dana Humaid Al Marzouqi provides her thoughts on the issue
  • Despite concerning findings, advances in online safety technology and increased government engagement offer hope to turn the tide on the global crisis.

GCC: WeProtect Global Alliance, a global movement of more than 200 governments, private sector companies and civil society organisations working together to transform the global response to child sexual exploitation and abuse online, has today published its 2021 Global Threat Assessment. 

The assessment’s findings show the scale of child sexual exploitation and abuse online is increasing at such a rapid rate that a step change is urgently required in global response to create safe online environments for children. 

According to the assessment, the reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse online has reached its highest levels to date in the past two years, with the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) alone processing 60,000 reports of child sexual abuse online every day.

In the Arab world, almost 1 in 2 respondents (44%) from the Middle East & North Africa to WeProtect Global Alliance’s international Economist Impact survey reported experiencing an online sexual harmi in childhood. While the MENA percentage is one of the lowest in the world, it remains a key issue requiring urgent attention.

The assessment also highlights the COVID-19 pandemic as an undeniable contributor behind the spike in reported incidents. The rise in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material is another trend that challenges existing response models, with the Internet Watch Foundation observing a 77% increase in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material from 2019 to 2020. 

Iain Drennan, Executive Director of WeProtect Global Alliance, says: 

“The internet has become central to children’s lives across the world, even more so as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, we have observed an increase in the scale and complexity of child sexual abuse online. This report should act as a wake-up call to us all; together we must step up the global response and create a safer digital world for all children.”

The 2021 Global Threat Assessment report details the scale and scope of the threat of child sexual exploitation online and aims to encourage action on the issue to reduce the risk to children and prevent abuse before it happens. 

The three main insights of the report are: 

  1. The scale and complexity of child sexual exploitation and abuse is increasing and is outstripping the global capacity to respond. 
  2. Prevention needs to be prioritised. While a strong law enforcement and judicial response is essential, a truly sustainable strategy must include active prevention of abuse. There is a need to ensure the creation of safe online environments where children can thrive.
  3. To tackle this complex, global issue, everyone with a role to protect children online needs to work together to dramatically improve the response. There is reason to be hopeful with child sexual exploitation and abuse moving up the global agenda, online safety technology becoming more accessible and advanced, and governments doing more to act.

As part of the report, a global study of childhood experiences completed by Economist Impact canvassed more than 5,000 young adults (aged 18 to 20) across 54 countries. More than one in three respondents (34%) had been asked to do something sexually explicit online they were uncomfortable with during their childhood. 

Also included in the report was a survey of technology companies that showed most are using tools to detect child sexual abuse material (87% use image ‘hash-matching’), but only 37% currently use tools to detect online grooming. 

WeProtect Global Alliance’s Global Strategic Response (GSR) provides a global strategy to eliminate child sexual exploitation and abuse, calling for greater voluntary cooperation, transparency, and implementation of online safety technologies, greater regulation to make online environments safer for children, and an increased investment in law enforcement. 

“We consider the launch of the Global Threat Assessment report 2021 as an opportunity to reflect and prioritize efforts and engage with the international community and share our experiences and practices. This report can be used by governments to guide their efforts. The challenge of sexual exploitation and abuse online is a crime of global magnitude and requires collaborative and multi-disciplinary efforts to combat and end it.” said Lt Col. Dana Humaid, Director General of the International Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Interior of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Additional major takeaways in the report include:

  • Overall, 57% of female and 48% of male respondents reported at least one online sexual harm
  • 57% of disabled respondents experienced an online sexual harm, compared to 48% of non-disabled respondents
  • 39% of racial or ethnic minority respondents would delete or block a person sending them sexually explicit content, compared to 51% of non-minority respondents. 
  • 17% of racial or ethnic minority respondents spoke to a trusted adult or peer about the content, compared to 24% of non-minority respondents

WeProtect Global Alliance

WeProtect Global Alliance brings together experts from government, the private sector and civil society to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse online.  

The Alliance generates political commitment and practical approaches to make the digital world safe and positive for children, preventing sexual abuse and long-term harm.  

In 2020, WeProtect Global Alliance relaunched as an independent organisation and is the combination of two initiatives: 

  • The European Commission and US Department of Justice’s Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online; and 
  • WePROTECT Children, established by the UK Government as a global multi-stakeholder response to combating online child sexual abuse. 

The Alliance consists of 98 governments, 53 companies, 61 civil society organisation and 9 international organisations. 

Global Threat Assessment Report 2021

The Global Threat Assessment Report 2021 published by the Alliance details the scale and scope of the threat of child sexual exploitation and abuse online. It aims to encourage evidence-based action by recognising the significant progress achieved to date, and highlighting opportunities to reduce the risk to children, to prevent abuse before it takes place. 

This report is a meta study that distils findings from multiple international studies to increase their global reach, collate a holistic picture of the threat, and offer a balanced assessment where information is incomplete, or experts disagree (caveating where appropriate).

This secondary research is supported by various forms of primary research:

  • Interviews with law enforcement officials, child safety advocates, academics, technology industry representatives and other experts. 
  • Case studies provided by member organisations and their affiliates.
  • An anonymised survey of 32 global technology companies, which was conducted by the Alliance in collaboration with the Technology Coalition 
  • Intelligence ‘vignettes’ developed by Crisp, a leading provider of online safety technologies. 

Economist Impact Survey

To help fill the global knowledge gap on the potential scale and scope of online sexual harms against children, Economist Impact and WeProtect Global Alliance conducted a study that gathered evidence from more than 5,000 18 to 20 year olds in 54 countries around the world who had regular access to the internet as children.

The questionnaire asked respondents about their exposure to online sexual harms and their risk factors during childhood. 

i. Questions centred on four online sexual harms, defined as: 

  • Being sent sexually explicit content from an adult they knew or someone they did not know before they were 18.
  • Being asked to keep part of their sexually explicit online relationship with an adult they knew or someone they did not know before a secret.
  • Having sexually explicit images of them shared without consent (by a peer, an adult they knew, or someone they did not know before).
  • Being asked to do something sexually explicit online they were uncomfortable with (by a peer, an adult they knew, or someone they did not know before).

Definition for ‘Child sexual exploitation and abuse online’ 

Child sexual exploitation and abuse that is partly or entirely facilitated by technology, i.e. the internet or other wireless communications.