Warning: this article describes issues around sexual assault. For advice and support please contact the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) on 800.856.HOPE or at www.rainn.org

Online child sexual exploitation has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, with millions of people around the world working remotely and many victims trapped in isolation with their abusers.

A report published by INTERPOL last week found that a number of convergent factors from COVID-19—including the closure of schools, restrictions on international travel, and an increased amount of time spent online—have created a perfect storm for sexual predators.

The report’s authors cited an increase in the amount of child exploitation materials being shared via peer-to-peer networks, particularly on the darknet, as well as an increase in self-generated materials—nude selfies, for example—being distributed on the clear net. Restrictions on movement and more time spent at home has fed an increase in demand, they note, while economic hardships and opportunities for abuse has fed an increase in supply.

And all of this has coincided with significant delays in the reporting and policing of abuse as a result of downsizing measures and staff cutbacks.

“What the report shows is that we are seeing just the tip of a growing iceberg in terms of online child exploitation material,” said Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL Secretary General, in a media release. “It is important to remember that each photo and video of child sexual abuse is evidence of a real crime involving real children.

“Each time an image is viewed those children are re-victimized and their very real suffering is prolonged even further.”

The INTERPOL report confirms some of the darkest fears raised by global organisations and government bodies in the early stages of the pandemic.

The FBI foreshadowed in March that “due to school closings as a result of COVID-19, children will potentially have an increased online presence and/or be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk”.

Days earlier, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)—a charity that identifies child sexual abuse content online—warned that “children may be at greater risk of grooming during coronavirus”.

And in the first days of April, the UK’s National Crime Agency predicted a rise in online child sexual abuse offences as lockdowns came into effect around the world—noting that offenders were already discussing opportunities over online chat forums on ways to abuse children during the crisis.

Since then, those fears have manifested in countries around the world via a series of disturbing trends and media reports. At the end of April the US’s Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) revealed that there was a 22 percent increase in monthly calls to their National Sexual Assault Hotline from people younger than 18. Half of those were from minors, 67 percent identified their offender as a family member and 79 percent said they were currently living with that offender.

Around the same time, the Childline India helpline received more than 92,105 SOS calls relating to children over the course of 11 days. A spokesperson for the Philippines’ International Justice Mission warned that local traffickers were livestreaming an inordinate amount of on-demand, child sexual abuse and exploitation materials to offenders online, primarily in Western countries. And the India Child Protection Fund highlighted a 95 percent increase in child porn consumption and a 200 percent spike in searches for videos showing children bleeding, choking, tortured or in pain since the start of the country’s lockdown.

In Australia, reports of online child sexual exploitation made by members of the public increased by 122 per cent as the nation went into coronavirus lockdowns through April, May and June. Coordinator of Australian Federal Police forensics in New South Wales, Nathan Green, told the ABC that “the restrictions COVID has brought in have resulted in families being locked up at home, and if in that family there happens to be an abuser it’s fairly apparent what’s going to happen.”

Green further pointed out that “statistically, everybody [in Australia] would know somebody” who is an abuser.

“There is a lot of child abuse going on in the community today,” he said, “and a lot of it is facilitated through technology.”

Speaking to VICE News over email, an AFP spokesperson confirmed that the amount of child abuse material being shared on the darknet appears to be increasing—with some sites hosting online child sex abuse material crashing due to the overwhelming amount of internet traffic.

“COVID-19 themed forums have grown to more than 1,000 members who are sharing hundreds of videos and images and discussing their tendencies toward the abuse of children in the COVID-19 environment,” they added.

The difficulty of combatting that abuse online has been further compounded by COVID. IWF previously reported that between 16 March and 15 April, the first month when workplaces in many countries around the world really started to feel the impacts of the pandemic, 1,498 web pages featuring child sexual abuse were taken down—an 89 percent reduction from the previous month.

It was around this time that Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook’s third-party US content moderators would be working from home, and that the company would increase its use of artificial intelligence to moderate content during coronavirus.

“What we are seeing here is the first hard evidence of how the global crisis is affecting the fight against child sexual abuse material,” chief executive of the IWF, Susie Hargreaves, told The Guardian. “Even though our analysts are working as normal to find this evil content, it is staying available for longer, even after they have reported it. This means there is more opportunity for sexual predators to view and share it.”

In its report last week, INTERPOL sought to address these challenges via a series of recommendations—among them, the insistence that countries ensure hotlines remain open and staffed, and consider additional ways for offences to be flagged such as free texting services and integrated reporting channels on social media.

The report’s authors also suggested other ways of adapting to the unique challenges presented by the pandemic, including virtual justice systems and support and medical services that provide assistance and protection to children during the health crisis.

It is limited access to these kinds of services, they noted—including child care and educational personnel, who often play a key role in detecting and reporting cases of child sexual exploitation—that is likely contributing to the disturbing uptick in abuse.

If you found anything in this article triggering, please contact the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) on 800.856.HOPE or at www.rainn.org

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