Our live-streaming report: The case studies
Coerced, groomed, tricked and lied to, here are the victims' stories
How can this type of abuse happen to children online?
The author of our report worked with over 2000 cases where children had been (we believe) either groomed or coerced into live-streaming video of themselves, via their webcam, mobile or tablet. Most of the illegal videos we saw had apparently been recorded by offenders, who viewed the live-streamed abuse and then redistributed it. In many cases, the children appeared to be completely unaware a recording was being made. The backgrounds in the videos we studied, mostly showed that the youngsters were in very ordinary ‘home’ settings - somewhere like their bedrooms, or a bathroom. Critically, no adult appeared to be present in the images we saw. Therefore, it’s our belief that these children were being ‘directed’ to abuse themselves and live-stream the sexual abuse.
This form of grooming is complicated and only possible because of the ‘anonymity’ the internet offers. An offender may be, for example, a 40-year-old man. But by abusing a legitimate internet site to create a false profile, he could appear online as a 12-year-old school girl. Through working with the 2082 illegal images and videos in the report, the author saw a range of grooming scenarios that abusers employ. The stories below provide a cautionary tale.
Names and some details in these stories have been changed to protect the identities of the children involved. However, their experiences and the abuse is very real.
Sophie – desperate for ‘likes’.
Sophie is our youngest case history. She’s about seven-years-old and she’s in the bathroom at home. It sounds like her mum, or an adult, is occasionally outside the door. It’s a normal domestic home setting. Sophie has her tablet and she’s being encouraged by someone online to take off her clothes and dance in front of the tablet camera. She’s alone, but it’s clear that she’s being guided. Her reward? She receives ‘likes’.
For Sophie, it seems like this is a game and she wants to win. But online, where abusers can cloak themselves in secrecy, she’s being manipulated into poses and actions that a child of her age would be extremely unlikely to comprehend. She becomes upset and distressed when the offender stops ‘liking’ the images. She’s just a child and has no understanding of the power of the abuser, or the sinister game that is really being played. Sadly, the adult outside the door appears to be oblivious to the sexual abuse that is happening in the home. In this case, the images created were circulated to offenders across the globe – before we tracked them down and had them taken down.
At the IWF, we pass on any information that’s possibly helpful to the police. Our hope is that Sophie was rescued, before the abuse became any more severe and damaging to this very young child.
Marie – tricked into thinking she was chatting to another child.
Marie is about nine-years-old. Like many children, she appears to be using a chatroom to make friends with other youngsters her own age. When we see Marie, she’s alone and in her bedroom. Like any normal 9-year-old there are teddies and sparkly shoes and clothes strewn across the room. The door is closed and Marie is using her tablet. She thinks that she’s talking to another young girl. She thinks that she’s talking to a friend. But she’s not.
From the video feed we see in the corner of the shot, Marie is being fed a previously recorded ‘as live’ film. By the clever use of technology, her abuser is showing Marie a film. But she thinks it’s happening in real time. She thinks it’s her friend.
The ‘film’ Marie is viewing shows the other child gradually becoming more and more self-abusive. Marie is being led to follow the actions of the young girl she’s seeing on the screen. As this is a ‘live’ conversation she appears to think that she’s simply copying the actions of another girl, her friend. She may also believe that no one will ever see what’s happening, that it’s private, it’s their secret. It appears that Marie thinks that she’s playing a childish game, the ‘I’ll show you mine’ scenario that youngsters can be drawn into by friends.
But there was no young girl at the other end of Marie’s webcam feed. She was being groomed by a sophisticated child sex offender, who through manipulation and technical ‘trickery’ had persuaded a young girl to perform sexual acts. The abuser used Marie’s innocence to make her believe she was seeing and talking to an actual child. Sadly, Marie was not the only child in the research to be ‘groomed’ to this level.
Zoe – in love and lied to, she believed she had a secret boyfriend.
At around 12-years-old, Zoe was one of the older children we saw in our study. Her abuser appeared to be extremely well practiced in grooming inexperienced young girls.
Of course, the grooming probably didn’t happen overnight. From the illegal video imagery we saw, Zoe seemed to believe that she was in a real relationship with a young man. She thought that he loved her. The abuser may have created an elaborate story line, or reasoning, why their ‘relationship’ had to remain secret. It was exciting. It gave her something to rush home from school for. She felt special. But it was all a lie.
Zoe’s ‘boyfriend’ (we believe) was likely to be a much older man, probably an experienced abuser who had targeted the youngster for sexual exploitation and knew exactly what to do. The abuse Zoe suffered from this man was horrific. From the safety of her own bedroom, she was persuaded and then coerced into performing sexual acts. Despite not even being in the room, the offender gained so much power over Zoe that he could control her every move. The abuse was recorded and shared. Zoe had no idea that she was being so ruthlessly sexually exploited. She thought she was in love. She believed she was in a real, romantic relationship.
The findings of the study were based on analysis of the imagery. Therefore, they do not provide a conclusive examination of the persuasive measures employed by abusers (page 3). They are however intended as ‘indicators’ for both further study and for professionals working in law enforcement, or with victims.