We found over 300 million young people had experienced online sexual abuse and exploitation over the course of our meta-study | The Conversation

Our new report, Into The Light, has produced the world’s first estimates of the scale of the problem in terms of victims and perpetrators.

Our estimates are based on a meta-analysis of 125 representative studies published between 2011 and 2023, and highlight that one in eight children – 302 million young people – have experienced online sexual abuse and exploitation in a one year period preceding the national surveys.

Cases have soared since COVID changed the online habits of the world. For example, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reported in 2023 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% since the UK went into lockdown.

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

This abuse can also utilise AI deepfake technology – notoriously used recently to generate false sexual images of the singer Taylor Swift.

Our estimates indicate that just over 3% of children globally experienced sexual extortion in the past year.

Child exploitation exists in every part of the world but, based on intelligence from multiple partners in the field, we estimate that a majority of Interpol member countries lack the training and resources to properly respond to evidence of child sexual abuse material shared with them by organisations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC is a body created by US Congress to log and process evidence of child sexual abuse material uploaded around the world and spotted, largely, by tech giants. However, we believe this lack of capacity means that millions of reports alerting law enforcement to abuse material are not even opened.

Using image and video comparison software – essentially photo ID work that instantly recognises the digital fingerprint of images – investigators can quickly compare images they have uncovered with images contained in the database. The software can instantly make connections between victims, abusers and places.

But despite these data strides, there are concerns about the inability of law enforcement to keep pace with a problem too large for officers to arrest their way out of.

Of course, it is also easy to appreciate the concerns some people have on civil liberties grounds which have limited the use of such technology across Europe. In the wrong hands, what might such technology mean for a political dissident in hiding for instance?

And so, it may seem to some that we have reached a Kafkaesque point where the right to privacy of abusers risks trumping the privacy and safety rights of the children they are abusing.

Source: We found over 300 million young people had experienced online sexual abuse and exploitation over the course of our meta-study

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