Online child abuse spiked during pandemic, says report

Nearly half of the survey respondents from the Mena region have experienced sexual harm online at least once during childhood

The pandemic has contributed to a significant spike in child sexual exploitation and abuse online, a new global study has revealed.

Following shocking revelations from the 2021 Global Threat Assessment report, published by WeProtect Global Alliance, experts have called for an urgent change in the global response to the worldwide issue.

According to the survey, almost one in two respondents, 44 per cent, from the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) respondents in the survey said they experienced sexual harm online at least once during childhood.

Furthermore, the assessment also highlighted the Covid-19 pandemic as an undeniable contributor to the spike in reported incidents.

WeProtect Global Alliance, a global movement of more than 200 governments, private sector companies and civil society organisations working together to transform the global response to child sexual exploitation and abuse online, published its 2021 Global Threat Assessment on Monday.

As part of the report, a global study of childhood experiences completed by Economist Impact canvassed more than 5,000 young adults (aged 18 to 20) across 54 countries.

More than one in three respondents (34 per cent) had been asked to do something sexually explicit online that they were uncomfortable with during their childhood.

Key findings in the report

According to the assessment, the reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse online has reached its highest levels to date in the past two years, with the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) alone processing 60,000 reports of child sexual abuse online every day.

The rise in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material is another trend that challenges existing response models, with the Internet Watch Foundation observing a 77 per cent increase in child ‘self-generated’ sexual material from 2019 to 2020, the report read.

UAE spokesperson for the group Lt-Col Dana Humaid, director-general of the International Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Interior, said: “The challenge of sexual exploitation and abuse online is a crime of global magnitude and requires collaborative and multi-disciplinary efforts to combat and end it.”

She added: “We consider the launch of the Global Threat Assessment report 2021 as an opportunity to reflect and prioritize efforts and engage with the international community and share our experiences and practices. This report can be used by governments to guide their efforts.”

Also included in the report was a survey of technology companies that showed most are using tools to detect child sexual abuse material (87 per cent use image ‘hash matching), but only 37 per cent currently use tools to detect online grooming.

Findings from the Arab world

While the Mena percentage is one of the lowest in the world, it remains a key issue requiring urgent attention.

Iain Drennan, executive director of WeProtect Global Alliance, said: “The internet has become central to children’s lives across the world, even more so as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

He added: “Over the past two years, we have observed an increase in the scale and complexity of child sexual abuse online. This report should act as a wake-up call to us all; together we must step up the global response and create a safer digital world for all children.”

The report also detailed the scale and scope of the threat of child sexual exploitation online and aims to encourage action on the issue to reduce the risk to children and prevent abuse before it happens.

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Drennan said: “Prevention needs to be prioritised. While strong law enforcement and judicial response is essential, a truly sustainable strategy must include active prevention of abuse. There is a need to ensure the creation of safe online environments where children can thrive.

Major takeaways in the report include:

· Overall, 57 per cent of female and 48 per cent of male respondents reported at least one online sexual harm

· 57 per cent of disabled respondents experienced online sexual harm, compared to 48 per cent of non-disabled respondents

· 39 per cent of racial or ethnic minority respondents would delete or block a person sending them sexually explicit content, compared to 51 per cent of non-minority respondents.

· 17 per cent of racial or ethnic minority respondents spoke to a trusted adult or peer about the content, compared to 24 per cent of non-minority respondents

author

Dhanusha Gokulan

Originally from India, Dhanusha Gokulan has been working as a journalist for over ten years. For Khaleej Times, she covers NRI affairs, civil aviation, and immigration issues among other things. She completed her BA in Journalism, Economics and English Literature from Mangalore University in 2008 and is currently pursuing her MA in Leadership and Innovation in Contemporary Media at the American University in Dubai. In her spare time, she dabbles with some singing/songwriting, loves food, and is mom to an over-enthusiastic Labrador retriever. Tweet at her @shootsprintrite.

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