Children may be at greater risk of grooming during coronavirus pandemic as IWF braces for spike in public reports
There are warnings that, with schools being forced to shut, there is an increased risk of children being groomed and coerced online.
Experts are bracing themselves for a spike in public reports of child sexual abuse on the internet as more and more people stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Analysts at the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) are preparing for an increase in public reporting of criminal material as a result of millions of people self-isolating at home.
There are also warnings that, with schools being forced to shut, there is an increased risk of children being groomed and coerced online into making explicit images and videos of themselves.
The IWF is the UK charity responsible for finding and removing videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse from the internet.
Every day, IWF analysts assess hours of footage and thousands of images which are reported to the IWF’s hotline.
The IWF says the work of its hotline will continue, even as other staff are forced to work from home as a precaution against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The charity is, however, preparing for a surge in public reporting.
Susie Hargreaves, Chief Executive of the IWF, said: “We are bracing ourselves for a spike in reports. The pandemic is forcing more and more people to stay indoors, and a lot of people are going to be spending much more time on the internet and at home on electronic devices.
“More people alone in their homes, and more people spending longer online sadly means we are likely to see more people stumbling across criminal material involving child sexual abuse on the internet. We are also expecting criminals to be more active on the internet during the coming months.
“This could mean we’ll see an unprecedented number of public reports to our hotline as more people spot things that are not right and report it to us.”
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 images or videos of children being sexually abused. This compares to 105,047 reports of child sexual abuse material in 2018 - an increase of 26%.
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.
Ms Hargreaves said: “Heartbreakingly, we see more and more of this material being filmed by children themselves on devices, sometimes livestreamed from their own bedrooms in the family home.
“They have been targeted and groomed by ruthless predators who sometimes pose under false identities to befriend and then terrorise and abuse young victims.
“My fear is that, with more young children being sent home from school, more of them will be spending a lot longer online, possibly exposing them to some of these criminals.”
Ms Hargreaves said parents must trust their children and allow them their privacy online, but urged them to have frank conversations with their children about the potential dangers of online grooming.
Ms Hargreaves said reporting criminal images of children suffering sexual abuse is always the right thing to do and urged people to keep using the IWF’s online reporting portal, which will operate as normal during the pandemic.
“We are providing a vital public service,” she said. “We are acutely aware of the strains the pandemic is placing on working professionals, and our priority is making sure our hotline staff are well prepared and supported.”
Searching for and viewing child sexual abuse material is against the law, and the IWF’s analysts are only able to perform their vital role thanks to a memorandum of understanding with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the National Police Chief's Council (NPCC).
This agreement acknowledges the indispensable role the IWF plays in tackling online child sexual abuse material and helping protect vulnerable children from exploitation.
Under the agreement, analysts can view criminal material while working in the IWF’s hotline. It is, however, not a job they can do from home.
Ms Hargreaves said: “While some of our staff are able to work from home, our hotline analysts will still be working from the hotline to ensure they have all the tools and resources at their disposal to make sure the internet is kept safe for everyone, and children are protected from harm.
“They are doing an immense job, and we fully support them in rising to the challenge posed by COVID-19.”
The IWF will continue taking reports and will continue to find and remove child sexual abuse material from the internet.
Ms Hargreaves added: “If people stumble across these images online, they need to know we are a safe place they can turn to.
“You can still report anonymously to us and we will get material analysed and removed.”
A gold-standard welfare package is in place to look after the analysts’ mental health while performing their challenging role.
The IWF works specifically to find and remove child sexual abuse material online.
The IWF website provides a list of different organisations, websites and resources to help the public find the right person to speak to for material which falls outside this remit.
People can still report child sexual abuse material as normal here (https://report.iwf.org.uk/en)