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Online grooming: Let's close the door to online child sexual abusers

Children are being contacted and sexually exploited on online platforms and apps at home in their own bedrooms, while their parents and carers believe they are safe. This is sadly the predominant type of child sexual abuse material that we see online, through our work in the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) hotline.

When I first joined IWF – in 2011 – “sexting” was a little-known term but the year after, we conducted our first snap-shot study counting the number of sexting images we could find online in a given period of time. From then until now, we’ve charted the increase in this type of imagery, and how it’s become a method of choice for online sex offenders to create new child sexual abuse content.

“Self-generated” or child sexual abuse are somewhat inadequate terms for sexual abuse images and videos created using webcams or smartphones and then shared online via a growing number of platforms. In some cases, children are groomed, deceived or extorted into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves. Often, we believe, the child is unaware that they are being recorded.

  • From January to April 2021, just over 38,000 reports the IWF actioned included “self-generated” content. This compares to the same period in 2020 when about 17,500 reports included self-generated content – a growth of 117%.
  • In 2020 we confirmed 68,000 cases of “self-generated” imagery. This was nearly half of all the reports we actioned in the year (153,000).

While any child can become a victim of this type of abuse, the vast majority of victims we see are girls, aged between 11 and 13 years old.

What can we do about this?

Awareness is key to fighting this criminality and protecting our children. While IWF identifies and removes this imagery online, it would be much better to prevent this content being created in the first place.

Campaigns

Backed by Microsoft and the UK Government’s Home Office, we developed two research-led campaigns. The first, aimed at teen girls, is Gurls Out Loud; a deliberately empowering campaign, leaning on social trends and working with social media influencers, to reach our most vulnerable audience: 11-13 year old girls. We want girls to recognise the actions of offenders online, and Block. Report. Tell someone they trust.

The second, aimed at parents and carers, is Home Truths; an unapologetically shocking campaign to help raise awareness of this type of criminality happening under the noses of caregivers, which follows up with simple and effective ways to start good quality conversations with teens. We ultimately want parents and carers to T.A.L.K. to their daughters.

  • Talk to your child about online sexual abuse. Start the conversation – and listen to their concerns.
  • Agree ground rules about the way you use technology as a family.
  • Learn about the platforms and apps your child loves. Take an interest in their online life.
  • Know how to use tools,apps and settings that can help to keep your child safe online.

We are extremely grateful to the Welsh Government for helping us to make these campaigns as far-reaching as possible and you can find out more about Gurls Out Loud and Home Truths in the Keeping safe online area on Hwb.

Providing the tools to get images and videos removed across the internet

Having a sexual image or video of themselves shared online can be a distressing situation for a young person. If they’re under 18, they can use Childline and IWF’s ‘Report Remove’ tool to see if it can be taken down.

There are just three simple steps:

  1. Visit childline.org.uk/remove and follow the instructions to prove their age. If they’re 13 or older, they’ll be supported to prove their age using an age verification app called Yoti. They will need some ID for this.
  2. Log into, or create, a Childline account so they can receive updates on their report.
  3. Report and remove: share the image or video securely with the IWF, who will review it and work to have it removed if it breaks the law. The IWF will give the image or video a ‘digital fingerprint’ to help spot the image across the internet and take it down.

If the child or young person is under 18, or was under 18 when a nude or sexual image or video was taken, it can be removed here: Remove a nude image shared online | Childline.

Reporting child sexual abuse content online

Websites containing images and videos of child sexual abuse online can always be reported directly to us at the IWF https://report.iwf.org.uk/en. Any report made can be made completely anonymously. You can also leave your details if you want feedback on a report.

Once a report is received, our analysts in our Hotline will manually review it and, if criminal, we will take the steps to remove that site from the internet. In 2020, nearly 20,000 reports from the public were actioned. Public reports have led to real children being rescued from years of abuse. So if you ever do stumble across anything you think is child sexual abuse, don’t do nothing – report it.

What else do we do?

We provide services, tools and datasets to our Members – the companies and organisations which support our work. These range from a URL List – which ensures all known child sexual abuse webpages are blocked, while we work in the background to get them removed – to our Hash List – where we give each and every image and video a ‘digital fingerprint’ to ensure they cannot be stored, shared or uploaded to a platform.

162 companies and organisations are Members of the IWF, including the Welsh Government, and we continue to promote our services to internet providers to ensure the re-victimisation of children every time that image is viewed, cannot happen.

Who are we?

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a technology-led, child protection organisation, making the internet a safer place for children and adults across the world.

We’re a not-for-profit organisation, supported by the internet industry, and the European Commission and the generosity of ordinary people. We work closely with police, governments and NGOs globally, who trust our work. For 25 years we’ve given people a safe place to report imagery anonymously, now covering 48 countries.

We assess every report we receive. If it shows the sexual abuse of a child, we make sure the image or video is removed. To do this effectively, we develop new technology-for-good and provide bespoke tools to our industry Members.

We care. No child should suffer repeated abuse and victimisation by having the recordings of their abuse shared time and time again. Our work relies on compassionate and resilient staff members, who are highly trained and carefully looked after. We encourage others to play their part, whether it is reporting to us, funding us, or collaborating on the best technology and research.

The children in these pictures and videos are real. The suffering captured in this imagery and the knowledge that it could be shared can haunt a victim for life. That’s why it’s our mission to eliminate this material for good. And to show every child there is someone out there who cares enough to help.

We’re very proud to call the Welsh Government and Hwb an IWF Member. Their support for our work shows they have Wales’ children, and their safety online, at their heart.


Susie Hargreaves OBE

CEO of Internet Watch Foundation

Susie joined the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in September 2011 as Chief Executive and has worked in the charity sector for more than 25 years in a range of senior positions. Susie is a Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre and a member of the National Crime Agency (NCA) Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Command Strategic Governance Group.

Susie is an Executive Board member of the UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS), a founding member of the WePROTECT Global Alliance International Advisory Board and is currently a Steering Group Member of the WePROTECT Global Threat Assessment.

Susie represented the IWF as a Core Participant on the internet part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and she served as an expert advisor to UNICEF.

Susie was a Commissioner for the Centre for Social Justice’s investigation into Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (CSEA) and is an advisory board member of the International Justice Mission. Susie is a Clore Leadership Fellow and was a finalist for a European Woman of Achievement Award; PA Magazine’s Best Boss of 2014; Executive of the Year 2017 in the ISPA Awards and a finalist in the European CEO Awards 2018.

Susie was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2016 for Services to Child Online Safety, and is a Trustee of SOS Children’s Villages.