There has been an alarming 87% increase in reported child sexual abuse material cases since 2019, according to the WeProtect Global Alliance Global Threat Assessment Report, which says there have been more than 32-million reports globally.

The findings, the organisation adds, underscore the pressing need for a coordinated, multi-faceted response to protect the world’s children from this escalating threat.

The report, which provides critical insights into the threats children face online in 2023, also found there has been a 360% increase in self-generated sexual imagery of seven to 10-year-olds from 2020 to 2022 (Internet Watch Foundation). Shockingly, it was also revealed that conversations with children on social gaming platforms can escalate into high-risk grooming situations within 19 seconds, with an average grooming time of just 45 minutes. Social gaming environments that facilitate adult-child intermingling, exchanging virtual gifts, and public ranking systems significantly increase these risks.

The research found a significant rise in financial sexual extortion, with reports of the harm jumping from 139 in 2021 to over 10 000 reports in 2022. This involves perpetrators grooming and manipulating children into sharing sexual images and video of themselves and then extorting them for monetary gain. Many extorters pose as young girls online and predominantly approach boys aged between 15 and 17 years via social media. This phenomenon has resulted in a string of cases where children have tragically taken their own lives.

New technology is heightening the threats that children face online. Since early 2023, cases of perpetrators also using generative Al to create child sexual abuse material and exploit children have been increasing. Thorn found that while less than 1% of child sexual abuse material files shared in a sample of offender communities are currently photorealistic computer-generated imagery (CGI) of child sexual abuse, the volume has increased consistently since August 2022. Last month, Australia, in a global first, put in place measures that require big tech companies to take steps to ensure AI products cannot be used to generate deepfake images and video of child sexual abuse.

“Our latest report shows the scale of the threat children face online,” says Iain Drennan, executive director of WeProtect Global Alliance. “Online-facilitated child sexual exploitation and abuse worldwide demands our attention and action right now. New technological capabilities further exacerbate existing risks, and the situation is no different in South Africa. Children’s safety must be non-negotiable. To prevent more children from coming to harm governments, online service providers, charities, and companies must step up their efforts and work together to drive change and protect children.”

Turning the tide on current abuse trends will only be possible with increased prioritisation and commitment from all stakeholders involved in the response – empowered and enabled by maturing legislation. To fight back, all stakeholders, including governments, online service providers, civil society organisations, and responders, are urged to:

• Invest in Public Health Approaches: Prioritise prevention and invest in interventions targeting those who have or are at risk of perpetrating or experiencing abuse. If we only invest in responding to the problem after the abuse has happened, we are failing children.

• Centre Children’s Rights and Perspectives: Design interventions that empower children, remove barriers to abuse identification, and enable them to hold online service providers accountable.

• Implement Globally Aligned Legislation: Prevent offenders from exploiting legal loopholes by enacting globally consistent internet regulations.

• Adopt a Safety by Design Approach: Implement innovative approaches to technology design that prioritise user safety from the outset, not as an afterthought.

“The WeProtect Global Threat Assessment Report provides ongoing insight into the global response to online child sexual exploitation and abuse,” says Karen Hollely, co-founder and COO of The Child Witness Institute, South Africa. ” There is considerable work being done to address this issue, and it is because of these reports that programmatic efforts are being made in many countries and, importantly, by many children. Despite this work, however, we are all still racing against time to find the best possible ways to prevent children from being exploited, abused, misinformed, and misguided online.

“One outcome of this work is the growing evidence that children who have strong relationships with their parents or other caregivers, where communication is open and welcomed, fare better than those children who don’t,” Hollely adds. “None of us will ever have a full and complete understanding of the vast capabilities of the Internet, but if we can sit down and talk about it with our children we have a better chance of providing them and ourselves with the skills to navigate it safely and positively.”

Additional findings from the report include:

• Chasm in Children’s Perceptions: A significant gap exists between children’s perceptions of online risks and the actual manifestation of online abuse, with evidence showing that perpetrators are often known to the child and private platforms is where most sexual harm occurs. This highlights the need for improved age-appropriate online safety information and accessible reporting processes.

• Pornography as a Precursor? The report highlights emerging evidence of a correlation between the frequent viewing of pornography and accessing child sexual abuse material.

• Minority groups targeted: Vulnerable minority and marginalised groups, including those based on sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or disability are disproportionately exposed to online sexual harm.

• Global instability increases abuse: Poverty, inequality, and global crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and climate change all contribute to the rise in child sexual exploitation and abuse.