‘Terrifying escalation’ in battle to keep children safe online as new figures reveal 300,000 people in the UK could pose sexual threat to children

Published:  Fri 3 Apr 2020

The IWF says new figures claiming at least 300,000 people in the UK pose a sexual threat to children is a “terrifying escalation” in the battle to keep children safe online.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has today (3 March) revealed it believes there are a minimum of 300,000 individuals in the UK posing a sexual threat to children, either through physical “contact” abuse or online.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is the UK charity responsible for finding and removing images and videos of children being sexually abused from the internet.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said the figures underline the importance of the IWF hotline.

She said it is more important than ever that IWF analysts keep working through the coronavirus crisis to give the public a safe and anonymous place to report child sexual abuse material online.

She urged parents to be aware of the threat posed by predators online, and to have frank conversations with their children about the potential dangers. 

Ms Hargreaves said: “This is a terrifying escalation of the threat to our children. These numbers are unlike anything before. It’s a genuine threat to our children right now. Parents may think that, because their child is at home, they are safe but sadly that just not always the case”

Ms Hargreaves said about a third of all known child sexual abuse material the IWF finds on the internet has been posted by children themselves after they have been groomed and coerced into making and sharing explicit images and videos of themselves.

More than three quarters of this “self-generated” material features 11 to 13-year-old children, the majority of whom are girls.

The NCA and UK police are warning of a spike in online child sex offending during the coronavirus crisis as children stay home because of school closures.

Rob Jones, NCA director of threat leadership, said: “The internet has undeniable benefits to society. But it’s also enabled a section of society to commit increasingly horrific crimes against children through grooming, live-streaming and distribution of indecent images.

“Preventing offences occurring is always crucial and now more so than ever when there is masses of online traffic and a possible elevated threat to children.

The National Police Chiefs Council’s (NPCC) lead for child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey said: “It is sickening to think that some criminals are looking to exploit the Coronavirus crisis to cause harm online.

“Despite the issues that the pandemic will cause for law enforcement, child protection is still a priority and we remain totally committed to keeping our young people safe.”

Ms Hargreaves added: “It is horrifying to think sexual predators are viewing the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to exploit a captive audience of children, who are spending more time at home on their devices.

“It’s a stark reminder of why the IWF’s work is more important than ever. We are working through the coronavirus outbreak so that anyone who stumbles across child sexual abuse material on the internet can do the right thing and report it to us. It’s anonymous, and it helps us get rid of those images and videos.

“Our hotline team, which assesses this material, are working from the office as normal.  As these figures show, more than ever, we need people to step up to help us keep children safe online and, more than ever, we need people to be thoughtful and responsible on the internet.”

In 2019, the IWF’s team of 13 analysts processed a record 260,400 reports. This is up from 229,328 reports in 2018, an increase of 14%.

Of these reports, 132,700 were confirmed to be of webpages of children being sexual abused, which equates to millions of images and videos. This compares to 105,047 webpages of child sexual abuse material in 2018 - an increase of 26%.

Images and videos of online child sexual abuse can be reported anonymously through the IWF portal

 The public is given this advice when making a 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 about a child’s welfare, 
  • Do report only once for each web address – or URL. Repeat reporting of the same URL isn’t needed and wastes analysts’ time.
  • Do report non-photographic visual depictions of the sexual abuse of children, such as computer-generated images. The images the IWF can take action on must be pornographic, be grossly offensive, and focus on a child's genitals or depict sexual activity involving or in the presence of a child. Anything of this nature, which is also hosted in the UK, the IWF can get removed.
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