IWF joins leading policing researchers to tackle online grooming and sexual imagery of children

Published:  Wed 7 Dec 2022

The findings will be ‘invaluable’ in turning the tide on the threat children are facing from online predators.

The Cambridge-based Internet Watch Foundation is partnering with a leading policing and public protection research institute to prevent children falling victim to predatory groomers online.

The IWF and PIER – the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford – have started a 26 month project to “Improve prevention strategies for ‘self-generated’ child sexual abuse material”.

The IWF is the UK hotline dedicated to finding and removing child sexual abuse material from the internet.

The project, which has been funded by the Oak Foundation, will develop an evidence-based prevention campaign that will reduce the number of new “self-generated” child sexual abuse images and videos on the internet.

These videos and images are created after a child has been groomed, tricked or manipulated by an adult predator online into performing sexually over a webcam-enabled device. The children abused this way are not participating of their own volition and are being manipulated by an adult predator.

In 2021 the IWF took action to remove a record-breaking 252,000 URLs which it confirmed contained images or videos of children being raped and/or suffering sexual abuse.

Of these, 182,281 URLs contained images or videos of tech-enabled material. This is a 374% increase on pre-pandemic levels when, in 2019, analysts took action to remove 38,424 URLs containing material generated in this way.

This material can include some of the most severe type of child sexual abuse content, Category A, which involves either sexual penetration, acts of bestiality or sadism.

To understand the phenomenon, researchers will work with children and young people, parents, caregivers, and educators, as well as perpetrators themselves.

The knowledge created through this project will help encourage conversations, awareness and understanding of this growing risk, and will also be used to influence and inform policy and practice for future prevention efforts.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said: “When we first identified that children were being approached, groomed and abused in this way, many people did not want to believe us.

“The horror that children, in any environment, in any home, could fall victim to these voracious sex predators and be made to abuse themselves, siblings, and friends in the most serious ways, was just too frightening to consider.

“But this is the reality, and it’s one we all must be awake to. This new project will throw a spotlight on the issue and really help us delve into what is driving this kind of abuse. The findings will be invaluable in turning the tide on this kind of offending and making sure children, and their parents and carers, can be protected from this insidious threat.”

PIER, part of Anglia Ruskin University, is an applied research institute, which for the last five years has worked with police and public protection partners to improve responses to the online threat of child sexual abuse.

PIER was commissioned by the UK Home Office in 2021 to conduct a secondary analysis of IWF survey data to produce insights into both parents’ and children’s awareness, understanding and behaviour in relation to this kind of abuse.

Now, PIER’s academics will deepen the analysis of this topic, identifying gaps in knowledge, and consulting further with young people, care givers and perpetrators.

Professor Sam Lundrigan, Director at PIER, said: “This is a really important project that will provide data as the basis for how we approach work to stop this incredibly harmful form of child abuse.

“The statistics from the IWF show just how prevalent self-generated imagery has become online and we need to do everything we can to turn the tide on this.

“The analysis we have already carried out has given valuable insights to the IWF to inform their awareness campaigns.

“Now, we hope that the next phase of our research and analysis will provide the information we need to better equip young people, their families and caregivers with an understanding of how young people can prevent themselves becoming involved in this type of online abuse.”

The public is given this advice when making a report to iwf.org.uk/report:

  • Do report images and videos of child sexual abuse to the IWF to be removed. Reports to the IWF are anonymous.
  • Do provide the exact URL where child sexual abuse images are located.
  • Don’t report other harmful content – you can find details of other agencies to report to on the IWF’s website.
  • Do report to the police if you are concerned a child may be in immediate danger.

Do report only once for each web address – or URL. Repeat reporting of the same URL isn’t needed and wastes analysts’ time.

A note about terminology used in this press release:

While the type of child sexual abuse material highlighted in this press release is referred to as “self-generated” in the PIER report and previous IWF documentation, the IWF no longer believes it accurately reflects the power that online predators have over children and the serious nature of the abuse that is inflicted on victims. As a result we are looking to move away from using this terminology to better support people’s understanding of the phenomenon.

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