Teenage boys targeted as hotline sees ‘heartbreaking’ increase in child ‘sextortion’ reports

Published:  Mon 18 Mar 2024

The IWF and NSPCC say tech platforms must do more to protect children online as confirmed sextortion cases soar.

Child sexual extortion, or “sextortion” reports have rocketed eightfold in a year – with boys being deliberately targeted by online criminals.

New data published today (March 18) by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) shows in 2023, IWF analysts confirmed 176 reports of sexual extortion that contained child sexual abuse material.

This is more than eight times as many as the previous year, when 21 cases of sexual extortion were recorded.

Boys are targeted most often in the reports received by the IWF (91%), with analysts frequently seeing evidence of boys being blackmailed by criminals looking to extort money. Three in five (60%) reports involved 16 and 17-year-olds.

Typically, once blackmailers gain children’s trust and successfully coerce them into sharing explicit images or videos, they quickly turn nasty and reveal their true nature.

Offenders either demand money or more sexual imagery in return for not exposing the child’s nudes to family or friends, or putting them on the open internet.

 

 

Most of the sexual extortion reports (93%) seen by the IWF come through the Report Remove service run jointly by the IWF and Childline.

The first-of-its-kind service empowers children in the UK to have sexual images of themselves removed from the internet and provides support and counselling if requested.

If sexual imagery gets out of control on the internet, or risks being spread online, children can have it removed and blocked. The IWF can even pre-emptively block imagery that has not yet been shared online, as long as a child has reported the imagery that is at risk of being shared.

 

A boy aged 18 who contacted Childline said: “I should have known she wasn’t real. I’ve never had any girls interested in me before, I’ll admit I was just glad a girl wanted to talk to me. I had doubts about her, but I ignored them. “After we exchanged numbers and nudes, she disappeared, and I got bombarded by messages from new accounts demanding money. I’ve already sent them hundreds of pounds, but they won’t leave me alone, how do I stop them asking me for more?” 

 

Since Report Remove was first piloted in 2019, the IWF has removed 1,395 images and videos reported by young people from the internet*.

The IWF, which finds and removes child sexual abuse material from the internet, and the NSPCC which runs Childline, are now calling for platforms to do more to protect children – especially if they intend to introduce end-to-end encryption, a move which has prompted fears that many child protection measures currently in place could be made less effective.

 

IWF CEO Susie Hargreaves OBE said: “The devastation that sexual extortion can cause cannot be overstated, and it is heartbreaking to see the number of cases continuing to rise.

“Children are not at fault here and we want them to know that there is support available to help them get through this harrowing experience. Wherever possible, IWF analysts will find and remove children’s sexual images and ensure that the image cannot be further shared online.

“However, it is not enough to be dealing only with the aftermath of sexual extortion. End-to-end encryption on messaging platforms is a huge threat to children. We cannot allow criminals to have a safe space online to callously exploit our children without repercussion.

“If tech companies introduce end-to-end encryption on their services, they must do more to ensure safeguards are in place to protect children and other users. There are ways to do so that still respect user privacy and we are happy to work with the tech industry to make that happen.”

 

NSPCC Chief Executive Sir Peter Wanless said: "Child sexual extortion is increasingly impacting young people with offenders exploiting poorly designed social media and messaging apps and using well-known grooming tactics with devastating effect as we saw in the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Dinal De Alwis.

“It’s crucial that young people know that they can get support if they ever face this situation online. Childline counsellors are just a call or a click away and our Report Remove tool can help get images removed with the help of the IWF.

“Tech companies must do far more to prevent this harm, so it’s incredibly concerning that Meta continue to push ahead with plans to roll out end-to-end encryption on Instagram and Facebook without setting out how they will identify and disrupt abuse. It’s also crucial that Ofcom act with bold ambition when implementing the Online Safety Act and take a strong approach to tackling child sexual abuse.”

Girls appear to be targeted for more sexually explicit images while boys are overwhelmingly targeted for financial reasons.

In transcripts seen by IWF analysts, it is clear children often do not realise they are being recorded by offenders and are horrified when the captured imagery is shown to them.

It is usually overlaid with lists of contacts – friends, schoolmates, family members, and sometimes even the police – to whom the blackmailer is threatening to send the imagery.

Nearly 7% of the cases seen in 2023 contained the most severe type of child sexual abuse content, Category A, which could involve penetrative sexual activity, a sexual act with an animal, or sadism.

 

Report Remove can be used in confidence, and the IWF and NSPCC want children and parents to know that the service is available and are encouraging children to make use of the service.

  • Childline and the IWF’s Report Remove tool can be found on the Childline website
  • Children can contact Childline confidentially 24/7 on 0800 1111 or at childline.org.uk
  • The IWF has sextortion resources which offer help and support and signpost children, educators and parents to further support services.

Notes to editors:

Table 1: Breakdown of online child sexual abuse reports involving sexual extortion. Actioned indicates a report which contained verified child sexual abuse material which IWF analysts took active steps to remove from the internet. Category A images involve penetrative sexual activity; bestiality or sadism; Cat B images involve non-penetrative sexual activity; and Cat C images is indecent material not falling within Cat A or Cat B.

Table 1: Breakdown of online child sexual abuse reports involving sexual extortion.

Table 2: Breakdown of actioned child sexual abuse reports involving sexual extortion for gender and age in 2023.

Table 2: Breakdown of actioned child sexual abuse reports involving sexual extortion for gender and age in 2023

Table 3: Breakdown of ALL actioned IWF child sexual abuse reports received via Report Remove tool in 2023. Not all of these reports were cases of sexual extortion.

Table 3: Breakdown of ALL actioned IWF child sexual abuse reports received via Report Remove tool in 2023. Not all of these reports were cases of sexual extortion.
*Report Remove data provided by the NSPCC

 

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

Contact: Cat McShane, IWF Press Officer [email protected] +44 (0) 7572 783227

Parents and carers are encouraged to T.A.L.K to their children about the dangers.

  • Talk to your child about online sexual abuse. Start the conversation – and listen to their concerns.
  • Agree ground rules about the way you use technology as a family.
  • Learn about the platforms and apps your child loves. Take an interest in their online life.
  • Know how to use tools, apps and settings that can help to keep your child safe online.

What we do:

We make the internet a safer place. We help victims of child sexual abuse worldwide by identifying and removing online images and videos of their abuse. We search for child sexual abuse images and videos and offer a place for the public to report them anonymously. We then have them removed. We’re a not for profit organisation and are supported by the global internet industry.

For more information please visit www.iwf.org.uk

The IWF is part of the UK Safer Internet Centre, working with Childnet International and the South West Grid for Learning to promote the safe and responsible use of technology.

The IWF works globally to stop child sexual abuse imagery on the internet. If you ever stumble across a sexual image or video of someone you think is under 18, please report to the IWF. Reporting can be done anonymously and confidentially – we don’t need your details, just your help.

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