Vital EU regulation needed to prevent the coercion of children online into most severe form of sexual abuse, as highlighted by new IWF study

Published:  Fri 18 Nov 2022

  • Snap study by IWF found almost 900 instances of penetration, bestiality or sadism content in just five days.

  • More than half of the child sexual abuse material identified was hosted in EU.

  • MEP calls for a ‘harmonised EU approach' for tackling this horrible crime.

Children as young as seven are being coerced into inserting household items such as pencils and toothbrushes into their vaginas and anuses for the sexual gratification of online predators, according to a study published by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). 

Analysts at the IWF found nearly 900 instances of the most severe form of abuse material – known as Category A in UK law and involving sexual penetration, acts of bestiality or sadism – over a five-day period.  

All the criminal content analysed in the study had been shared online by an abuser, or abusers, coercing a child via an internet-connected device with a camera. The abuser was remote to the child. 

In keeping with a broader trend, more than half of the content (57%) was hosted in EU countries, of which the Netherlands and the Slovak Republic feature in the top three. 

The IWF is Europe’s largest hotline dedicated to finding and removing images and videos of child sexual abuse from the internet. It is the only European hotline with the legal powers to proactively search for this kind of content.  

Creation of this type of sexual abuse content is orchestrated by criminals watching online via webcams, smartphones or other devices. Child victims are groomed and coerced into performing the sexual activities in their own homes and the images and videos are then shared and distributed many times over by offenders profiting from the victim’s trauma and abuse. No blame should be placed on the child. 

Efforts to curb the amount of child sexual abuse material hosted in Europe are thwarted by criminals who relocate the material from servers in one host country to those in another to evade detection and blocking.  

Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF CEO
Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF CEO

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said: “This shocking data serves to blast away any illusion that this imagery is simply children naturally exploring their sexuality. 

“The ordinariness of the items being used for the sexual pleasure of those watching, combined with the evidence of everyday childhood life in these images, drives home the stark reality of the situation. Predators are gaining unprecedented access to our children in places where we think they should be safe and protected. 

“More than half of the content in this study was hosted in the EU which highlights the importance of the vital European Commission proposal for a Regulation laying down rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse. 

“This is happening in homes in Europe and around the world. Abusers will stop at nothing and use everything and anything at their disposal to target, groom and exploit children online for their sexual purposes.” 

Lucia Ďuriš Nicholsonová, Slovak Member of the European Parliament and the Renew shadow rapporteur for the CULT Opinion on the Regulation laying down rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse said: “The production of child sexual abuse material has become a high-volume crime and our children are increasingly vulnerable to grooming and coercion over the internet. We have already started negotiations in the European Parliament to agree upon a harmonised EU approach for tackling this horrible crime as national differences in approach are exploited by criminals to make child sexual abuse content available online or its distribution monetised.  

“My own country, Slovakia, is a good example of a country which will benefit from this EU harmonisation. We haven’t had a formally recognised hotline for some time which aggravates the problem with child sexual abuse material hosted nationally. There is clearly work to be done to combat this nationally through law enforcement and through education.  

“I believe that this new data strengthens the argument for bringing Member States into effective cooperation with service providers and NGOs. We need to act now to set up effective prevention programmes and child sexual abuse material detection mechanisms to prevent this problem, and the accompanying trauma and distress suffered by the victims from getting any worse.” 

Graph category of abuse

Most of the content in the study (97%) showed penetration, often when a child was instructed to insert an object, sometimes more than one type, into their vagina or anus. 

The most common type of object used was the child’s own finger (419 instances), followed by a pen or pencil (232), a toothbrush (75), and a hairbrush (39). 

Graph age groups of victims

Children aged 11- to 13-years-old accounted for most of the images recorded (75%); while 20% was of 7- to 10-year-olds; and 5% were of children aged 14- to 15-years-old. 

This type of child sexual abuse, where a child is groomed and coerced over the internet, is by far the fastest growing type of sexual abuse material seen by the IWF. Almost three quarters (72%) of the webpages actioned last year contained this sort of imagery – an increase on 2020 when 44% of actioned reports were abuse imagery created via the internet. 

The snap study by the IWF was sparked by analysts viewing a “self-generated” video earlier this year of a young girl who had been coerced into penetrating herself with her finger before being instructed to rub her genitals with the handle of a sharp kitchen knife. 

In the video, the child who is around 7- to 10-years-old, is seen dancing on her bed with her dress pulled up and no underwear on. It’s clear that she has a conversation with somebody on the other end of the camera, but just the girl’s voice can be heard. She repeats back what she is being told and it’s clear the abuser flatters her and asks her if she has considered being a model. 

The child, who has long wavy hair which is tied up in bunches, displays her doll to the viewer. She nods to acknowledge what is being said on the screen and penetrates herself with her own finger. Then the girl is then instructed to rub her genitals with the handle of the knife. 

An IWF analyst said: “We see the worst of what adults force children to do and it really shocked us when we saw that this little girl was instructed to use a large kitchen knife. This video is what led us to start the study and keep a log of what objects children were being asked to use.” 

Among the Category A images and videos identified, 889 contained girls, six contained both boys and girls and one contained boys only. 

In addition to the household objects seen, 18 images accounted for bestiality, when what appears to be a family pet was encouraged to lick a child’s genitals.  

Country 

Number of images/videos 

% (rounded) 

Taiwan 

239 

27 

Netherlands 

214 

24 

Slovak Republic 

157 

18 

Malaysia 

117 

13 

Romania 

70 

8 

Bulgaria 

32 

3.6 

France 

27 

3 

United States 

19 

2 

Germany 

6 

0.7 

China 

5 

0.6 

Thailand 

5 

0.6 

Hong Kong 

2 

0.2 

Azerbaijan 

1 

0.1 

Luxembourg 

1 

0.1 

Russia 

1 

0.1 

Grand Total 

896 

101.0 

Figure 1: The table above shows the countries in which the imagery was hosted. To be clear, this does not tell us which country the victim(s) or offender(s) were in, nor from which country the content was uploaded online. 

A note about terminology used in this press release: 

In her final report in the UK Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), Professor Alexis Jay OBE, the inquiry’s chair, calls for plain and clear language to be used when talking about child sexual abuse. She said in her opening statement to the final report:  

“We also need to use the correct words to describe the actions of abusers – masturbation, anal and oral rape, penetration by objects – these words are still not considered acceptable terms by many in public and private discourse. Every incident of abuse is a crime and should not be minimised or dismissed as anything less, or downplayed because descriptions of the abuse might cause offence.” 

She is right. And it is thanks to her remarks that IWF has decided to make this data publicly available, and to describe what we’re seeing as accurately as we can. 

If we cannot be brave enough to use the right words to describe the true horror of what children are coerced to do, how can we expect children to be brave enough to find a way to talk to trusted adults about what is happening to them online.  

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