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Alarming increase in child sexual abuse on the internet: how criminals attack and keys to protecting children

A recent report identified an 87% increase in reported child sexual abuse material online for the last four years. These are situations where adults impersonate other people through social networks, text messages and messaging applications, emails, chats, online games or live streaming sites such as Twitch.

The report from WeProtect Global Alliance, an organization that tries to raise awareness among governments and the private sector about protecting children from online sexual abuse and exploitation, warns that there were at least 32 million reports, which represents an increase since a survey carried out in 2019.

“The report, which provides critical information on the threats children face online in 2023, also found that there has been an increase in 360% in self-generated sexual images of children aged 7 to 10 years from 2020 to 2022 (Internet Watch Foundation)”, they explain. That is, images that kids take of themselves to send.

“It was also revealed that conversations with children on social gaming platforms can become high-risk abuse situations in 19 seconds, with an average abuse time of only 45 minutes. “Social gaming environments that facilitate interaction between adults and children, virtual gift exchanges, and public rating systems significantly increase these risks,” they add.

Another identified trend of concern has to do with the use of artificial intelligence: “Since the beginning of 2023, cases of perpetrators who also use generative AI to create child sexual abuse material and exploit children have increased,” they said.

To understand this phenomenon more, Clarion spoke to Michelle Jeuken, communications director at Global Alliance: “The WeProtect Global Alliance builds political commitment and practical approaches to making the digital world safe and positive for children, preventing sexual abuse and long-term harm. Around the world, 102 countries are members of the Alliance, along with 66 private sector companies, 92 civil society organizations and 9 intergovernmental organizations,” she explains.

Here, the most common forms of online abuse, what responsibility falls on platforms like Instagram, TikTok and WhatsApp (Meta) and how to prevent these situations to take care of the little ones.

The most common cases of online child sexual abuse

Games are, many times, the gateway to the problem. Photo Shutterstock

─What are the most common cases of online child abuse?

The types of online child sexual exploitation and abuse explored in the Global Threat Assessment are:

1. Extortion and sexual coercion of minors for economic purposes

Criminals trick and extort children and adolescents into producing and sharing “self-generated” sexual content in exchange for an economic benefit. Many extortionists pose as young girls online and primarily target teenage boys through social media, proposing to exchange sexually explicit images. Once the explicit sexual images are sent, the extortioner threatens to send them to the minor’s friends and family, blackmailing them in exchange for money.

2. AI-generated child sexual abuse material

The aggressors use Generative AI to create child sexual abuse material and post their AI-generated content on image-sharing platforms, while promoting links to child sexual abuse depicting “real” children and hosted on other platforms. Generative AI is also misused to suggest methods to sexually abuse a child online or to find abusive material on the Internet. You can share information about how to destroy evidence and evade detection by security forces.

3. Grooming in online multiplayer games

The environmental characteristics of the social games can increase a child’s risk of sexual harm. Anonymous interaction in the game can help adults gain access to children, the ability to create or exchange value can help bullies build trust, ranking and status systems are used by bullies to build influence. Conversations on social gaming platforms can quickly turn to a high-risk situation in as little as 19 seconds, with an average time of 45 minutes.

4. Access, view and share sexual abuse of minors

Many aggressors have adopted the “link exchange” as a method of accessing new material and evading detection using “hash-matching” technology, sharing original, shortened or modified URLs. They take advantage of the social media security loopholes, posting illegal child sexual abuse material to private accounts with settings that limit visibility to the person who is logged in. Authors simply share account passwords with others to view the material. Social media platform algorithms help connect and promote a vast network of accounts openly dedicated to the commission and purchase of sexual content from minors.

5. Recruitment and coercion of minors to produce sexual material “autogenerated

Aggressors identify their victims on social networks, chats, gaming environments and other platforms that allow communication between users. They divert the conversation to a private messaging app or an end-to-end encrypted environment to reduce the risk of detection, before grooming, pressuring and manipulating minors into creating and sharing “self-generated” sexual images.

It also addresses new trends, such as the viewing and sharing of “legal images of children” for sexual gratification, and explores new data on the relationship between habitual consumption of legal adult pornography and the commission of sexual abuse of minors.

Child sexual abuse on the internet: the responsibility of the platforms

TikTok, one of the most used social networks in the world.  AFP PhotoTikTok, one of the most used social networks in the world. AFP Photo

─What do you think could be done from the platforms to avoid these problems? Is it possible to reduce them from their design itself?

─Online security tools and techniques have the potential to transform the global response to threats. Security technology can prevent, detect, block, report and remove illegal and exploitative material, live broadcasts and recruitment of minors. Technological tools can also be used to deter and detect criminals and identify and protect victims.

Technology can also be used to identify some of the most difficult problems that impede progress. Online tools can work much faster than humans to identify and detect abusive material, as well as to track platforms and websites used to share this material. The technology sector can also assess risks and help limit children’s vulnerability online.

─Could you give me some examples?

Yes, of course, it is what is called “safety by design”, or safe by design:

  • Tools of detection of child grooming and “safety by design” features that reduce opportunities for criminals and promote safe online behavior.
  • mechanisms deterrence that interrupt the pathways to crime.
  • Solutions “hash-matching” to detect and remove “known” child sexual abuse material, and classifiers used to detect child sexual abuse material that has never been detected or classified.

Specifically, Safety by Design places safety and user rights at the center of the design and development of online products and services. Rather than adapting safeguards after a problem has occurred, Safety by Design focuses on ways that technology companies can minimize online threats by anticipating, detecting and eliminating online harm before it occurs. This proactive and preventative approach focuses on integrating security into an organization’s culture and leadership. It emphasizes responsibility and aims to foster more positive, civil and rewarding online experiences for everyone.

This year’s Global Threat Assessment report also highlights the urgent need to invest in prevention-first public health approaches, to center children’s rights and perspectives in the design of interventions, and calls for the application of globally aligned legislation.

Tips to prevent online abuse

Speaking, the key.  Photo: ShutterstockSpeaking, the key. Photo: Shutterstock

─What key advice do you give to prevent these cases? How to educate a boy or girl in the most basic things so as not to fall into these traps?

─Parents and caregivers have an important role in talking to their children, making them aware of the risks they may face online and offline, and making sure they know they can talk to a trusted adult if they suffer. abuse or something doesn’t seem right to them. Children should also feel empowered and supported to take action, for example by deleting or blocking someone who sends them explicit content.

One of our members, the Internet Watch Foundation, has a campaign to help parents talk to their children about this issue. These tips include:

  • I talked with your child about sexual abuse on the Internet. Start the conversation and listen to her concerns.
  • Agree Basic rules about the use of technology in the family.
  • Get to know the platforms and apps your child likes. Take an interest in their life on the Internet.
  • Know how to use the tools, apps and settings that can help keep your child safe online.

─What needs to change at the government level to prevent these cases?

However, parents, guardians and especially children should not feel that it is their sole responsibility to address online abuse. We believe that everyone, including governments, the private sector and civil society, has a role to play in stepping up our response and ensuring that children can enjoy interacting, learning and playing online without fear of sexual abuse or exploitation.

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