Teenage girls increasingly at risk of online grooming and coercion, IWF report reveals

In light of these findings, a new campaign has been launched to warn young girls and their parents about the dangers of interacting with strangers on the internet

The annual report from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has revealed that teenage girls age 11–13 are more at risk of grooming and coercion at the hands of online predators now than ever before.

Launched today, the IWF’s Annual Report 2020 highlights the growing risk of children falling victim to internet predators, with young girls currently standing as the most vulnerable group. The criminals are known to groom, bully and coerce children into filming their own sexual abuse via internet-enabled devices, often from within the child’s own bedroom in the family home. The images and videos can then be shared widely online.

Experts from the Foundation, who are committed to finding and removing child sexual abuse material from the internet, have now worryingly and for the first time warned that this sort of abuse comprises almost half of the cases they are encountering online.

UK home secretary Priti Patel damned the “shocking” scale and severity of online child sexual abuse, which, she explained, highlights the timely importance of the government’s proposed online safety legislation. Among other things, the bill puts the onus of user safety – and particularly children – into the hands of technology companies.

“But these companies should not wait for legislation to be in place before they take action to address these abhorrent crimes,” said the home secretary. “The government has already set out vital steps the tech giants can take to stop sick predators operating on their platforms.”

“But these companies should not wait for legislation to be in place before they take action to address these abhorrent crimes” – Priti Patel, UK home secretary

These steps, outlined in the government’s Online Harms White Paper, include the enforcement of terms and conditions to tackle illegal activity that threatens the safety of children, on top of implementing measures to prevent young people accessing such harmful material to begin with.

Companies that fail to comply with the new regulations will face fines up to 10% of turnover, or £18m.

“I welcome the Internet Watch Foundation’s report and continued drive to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online,” said Patel.

The report shows that last year, the IWF saw 68,000 confirmed cases of self-generated imagery, accounting for almost half (44%) of the imagery the Foundation took action for in 2020 (with analysts confirming 153,350 reports of child sexual abuse material in total). This is a 77% increase on the total 38,400 reports from 2019, which included ‘self-generated’ material. New insights show that girls aged 11–13 years were victimised in 80% of these cases.

In response to their findings, the IWF has launched a campaign, backed both by Microsoft and the Home Office, to empower girls through social channels such as Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube; as well as to arm parents against the “dire” risks posed by internet predators, preparing them with knowledge and information on how they can protect their child(ren) online.

“The scale of the problem is appalling,” said Susie Hargreaves OBE, chief executive of the IWF, “and our fear is without intervention it will get worse, and more and more girls will fall victim to this pernicious and manipulative form of abuse.”

Hargreaves warns that, at this “pivotal time” where people are spending more time online due to enforced lockdown restrictions, predators are finding new ways to contact and manipulate children “who are, in many cases, a captive audience at home with their devices.”

“The scale of the problem is appalling, and our fear is without intervention it will get worse, and more and more girls will fall victim to this pernicious and manipulative form of abuse” – Susie Hargreaves OBE, chief executive, IWF

“Some of the campaign is shocking,” she said. “But the threat and the abuse is shocking. We don’t want to frighten people, but we do want to build resilience to the threat of self-generated sexual abuse of children. We want to help teenage girls to recognise the actions that constitute self-generated sexual abuse as abuse.

“We want them to feel empowered to take control, and to understand how to deal with inappropriate requests and report them to a trusted source,” added Hargreaves.

As part of the Home Truths campaign aimed at parents, a televised advert will depict a queue of adult sexual predators lining up outside a house before making their way upstairs and into a child’s bedroom, with the child’s parents remaining oblivious to the ‘open door’ to abuse in their home.

The campaign urges parents to T.A.L.K to their children about online threats:

  • Talk to your child about online sexual abuse. Start the conversation – and listen to their concerns.
  • Agree ground rules about the way your family uses technology.
  • 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 keep your child safe online.
    • Discuss and agree on privacy settings for the platforms and apps your child uses, and on more general settings for the family.

In other news: Microsoft named principal partner in ‘game-changing’ 1-2-1 device initiative


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