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Over 300m Children Fall Victim to Online Sexual Abuse Annually, Study Shows

Over 300 million children worldwide fall victim to online sexual exploitation and abuse each year, a new study has revealed.

The statistic which equates to one in eight of the world’s children, was published on Monday by the University of Edinburgh’s Childlight Global Child Safety Institute.

The study exposed the widespread, growing issue of online sexual abuse perpetrated against minors.

While carrying out the study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that in the past 12 months alone, millions of young people have been victims of non-consensual taking, sharing, and exposure to sexual images and videos.

In addition to the non-consensual sharing of sexual content, the report highlighted a similar number of cases involving solicitation that includes unwanted sexting and requests for sexual acts by both adults and other youths.

Offences range from sextortion, where predators demand money from victims to keep images private, to the abuse of AI technology to create deepfake videos and pictures.

Though it was indicated that the problem is worldwide, the research suggested that the United States is a particularly high-risk area, with one in nine men there admitting to online offences against children at some point.

The researchers analysed tens of millions of reports to the five main global watchdog and policing organisations including, the Internet Watch Foundation, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, the International Association of Internet Hotlines, and Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation database.

Analysing the reports helped the researchers better understand the nature of child sexual abuse images and videos online.

They discovered that nearly 13 per cent of the world’s children have been victims of non-consensual taking, sharing and exposure to sexual images and videos.

It was also observed that just over 12 per cent of children globally are estimated to have been subject to online solicitation, such as unwanted sexual talk which can include non-consensual sexting, unwanted sexual questions and unwanted sexual act requests by adults or other youths.

The study found that cases soared since COVID changed the online habits of the world.

Citing a 2023 report by the Internet Watch Foundation, the study revealed that child sexual abuse material featuring primary school children aged seven to ten being coached to perform sexual acts online had risen by more than 1,000 per cent since the UK went into lockdown.

According to the researchers, during the pandemic, thousands of children became more reliant on the internet to learn, socialise, and play and this was something internet predators exploited to coerce more children into sexual activities and sometimes, even including friends or siblings over webcams and smartphones.

They discovered that there has also been a sharp rise in reports of “financial sextortion”, with children blackmailed over sexual imagery that abusers tricked them into providing – often with tragic results that include a spate of suicides across the world.

They added that this abuse can also utilise AI deep fake technology, which is notoriously used recently to generate false sexual images of the singer Taylor Swift.

The study estimated that just over 3 per cent of children globally experienced sexual extortion in the past year.

“Child abuse material is so prevalent that files are on average reported to watchdog and policing organisations once every second,” said Childlight chief executive Paul Stanfield.

“This is a global health pandemic that has remained hidden for far too long. It occurs in every country, it’s growing exponentially, and it requires a global response,” he added.

The report comes after UK police warned last month about criminal gangs in West Africa and Southeast Asia targeting British teenagers in sextortion scams online.

According to non-governmental organisations and police, cases particularly against teenage boys are soaring worldwide.

Britain’s National Crime Agency issued an alert to hundreds of thousands of teachers telling them to be aware of the threat their pupils might face.

The scammers, it was noted, often pose as another young person, making contact on social media before moving to encrypted messaging apps and encouraging the victim to share intimate images.

“They often make their blackmail demands within an hour of making contact and are motivated by extorting as much money as possible rather than sexual gratification,” the NCA further revealed.