More children under 10 being targeted by paedophiles online, says watchdog

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Children under the age of 10 are increasingly being targeted by paedophiles online, figures from an internet watchdog suggest.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) received 392,660 reports of possible abuse images on websites in 2023, of which 275,655 were found to contain such material.

Of those, 107,615 (39%) were found to contain images of children under 10, up from 64,735 pages out of 255,580 (25%) in 2022.

Each of the pages can contain hundreds or thousands of images of abuse.

A total of 254,070 (92%) of the pages reported in 2023 featured what is classed as self-generated pictures or videos, where children are tricked or forced into taking obscene images of themselves.

About a fifth of the self-generated material was in the worst category, the IWF said.

In the previous year, 199,360 pages out of the 255,580 were found to contain child abuse material contained self-generated images (78%), of which 32,871, or 16%, were in the worst category.

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Chief executive of the IWF, Susie Hargreaves, said: “The imagery extorted or coerced from primary school-aged children is now finding its way onto the most extreme, dedicated child sexual abuse sites in shocking numbers.

“What starts in a child’s bedroom, over a webcam, is shared, traded, and harvested by committed and determined sexual predators. These criminals are ruthless.”

She also hit out at plans by Meta to bring in end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger.

In 2022, the tech giant passed more than 20 million reports of users potentially sharing images of children being sexually abused to a US helpline.

Ms Hargreaves added: “It is incomprehensible that Meta is deciding to look the other way and offer criminals a free pass to further share and spread abuse imagery in private and undetected.

“Children are falling victim like never before.

The IWF received 392,660 reports of possible abuse images on websites in 2023

“There really has never been a worse time to be a child on the internet, and Meta’s decision to bring in end-to-end encryption appears to be wilfully making this worse, not better, ignoring the evidence, and rewarding criminals with safe spaces at children’s expense.”

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said: “This alarming report clearly shows that online child sexual abuse is on the rise, and the victims are only getting younger.

“And yet, despite warnings from across government, charities, law enforcement and our international partners, Meta have taken the extraordinary decision to turn their backs on these victims, and provide a safe space for heinous predators.

“The decision to roll out end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger without the necessary safety features, will have a catastrophic impact on law enforcement’s ability to bring perpetrators to justice."

A Meta spokesperson said: “We don’t think people want us reading their private messages so have spent years developing robust safety measures to prevent, detect and combat child abuse while maintaining online security.

“We routinely provide more reports to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children than others, and given our ongoing investments, we expect that to continue.”