Prioritise children’s online safety at election to tackle ‘hidden pandemic’ of sexual abuse, experts urge

Prioritise children’s online safety at election to tackle ‘hidden pandemic’ of sexual abuse, experts urge

Experts warning of a “hidden pandemic” of online sexual abuse have urged politicians to prioritise children’s internet safety in their general election campaigns – and to treat the issue as a public health emergency comparable to Covid.

A new report has this week uncovered grim new insights into the prevalence of online sexual abuse both globally and in the UK.

Around one in eight children around the world have been victims of non-consensual taking, sharing and exposure to sexual images and video in the past year – equating to more than 300 million children, new research by University of Edinburgh researchers suggests, in the first-ever global estimate of the scale of the crisis.

The same number of children are estimated to have been subjected to sexting and unwanted sexual act requests by adults or other youths, according to the study, which draws on data from some 36 million reports to five major watchdogs and policing organisations globally.

In Britain, the researchers carried out a first-of-its-kind survey of more than 1,500 men, suggesting that as many as 1.84 million males in the UK may have carried out a form of online sexual abuse against the underaged.

In a further breakdown of the findings, shared exclusively with The Independent, the extrapolated results of the survey also suggests that:

  • 3.7 per cent of men (976,800) in the UK may have flirted or had sexual conversations with children

  • 2.9 per cent of men (765,600) in the UK may have deliberately viewed sexual images of children

  • 2 per cent of men (528,000) may have paid for online sexual interactions, images or videos of under-18s

  • 1.4 per cent of men (370,000) may have taken part in sexually explicit webcamming with children

Meanwhile, new statistics showed the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children watchdog was alerted to 178,648 cases of files containing sexual images of children being uploaded or hosted in the UK last year – equivalent to nearly 500 alerts every day.

Researchers warn the scale of online abuse is ‘staggering’ (PA Wire)
Researchers warn the scale of online abuse is ‘staggering’ (PA Wire)

In a rallying call issued to The Independent, the researchers at the university’s global child safety institute Childlight urged political parties to prioritise the issue in their campaigns for the upcoming general election – a message echoed by other leading child safety organisations, including the NSPCC and Children’s Society.

“The numbers The Independent is highlighting are staggering – and behind every number is a child. Evidence links [child sexual abuse] to poorer mental health and physical health, including chronic disease and early death,” said Childlight’s chief executive Paul Stanfield, a former Interpol director.

“That’s why we want politicians at this election and around the world to treat this pandemic as a public health emergency comparable to Covid.

“We wouldn’t endorse any political party, and there are good ideas across the political spectrum, but when we hear talk about national service, all the leaders could do this nation a service by pledging to put online child safety at the heart of this election. They need to help stop the world wide web from being like the Wild West.”

Hailing Childlight’s research for highlighting “the devastating scale of the problem”, the Internet Watch Foundation’s chief executive Susie Hargreaves told The Independent: “Protecting children and tackling child sexual abuse and exploitation, particularly online, must be a priority for an incoming government.

“We are seeing younger and younger children falling victim to online grooming and sexual abuse, all while emerging threats like AI-generated child sexual abuse imagery and sextortion continue to take hold.”

New legislation is needed to tackle AI-generated abuse and ensure the introduction of age verification on online platforms is effective, Ms Hargreaves said, urging the next government to invest more in preventing abuse and implement all recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

While the Tories’ long-awaited Online Safety Bill finally passed into law last year, putting the onus on tech companies to protect children from harmful material, it is expected to be at least another year before it can be enforced through regulator Ofcom’s new code of practice – which is yet to be approved.

Despite moves since to water down the bill, a Tory spokesperson insisted the bill’s passage had delivered on the party’s 2019 manifesto commitment “to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”, adding: “For the first time, social media platforms will be held to account for protecting their users, especially children.

“This is the most powerful children protection law to be passed in a generation, at the same time empowering adults to take control of their online lives.”

But Labour has been critical of delays to the bill and pledged earlier this month – if elected – to “work with bereaved families and quickly issue a statement of strategic priorities for Ofcom which keeps up with new dangers”.

Warning of the need for urgent action, the NSPCC’s senior child safety policy officer Rani Govender said: “It’s crucial that children’s experiences and safety are embedded into future tech policy and strategies while ensuring they are not shut out from the benefits of the online world.

“Party leaders should set out how they will ensure Ofcom holds companies to account through the ambitious implementation of the Online Safety Act and make it clear to tech bosses that children’s safety will be the price of bringing products to market in the UK.”

Calling it “essential” that the government and tech companies keep working to respond to wider and evolving threats to young people, a Children’s Society spokesperson said: “All political parties should urgently commit to robust policies that protect our children in the digital world and keep them safe online.”

But Mr Stanfield warned that MPs’ recent calls for the next government to ban smartphones or social media for under-16s risk criminalising children, and would “let social media companies off the hook when they should be doing more to prevent abusers having free rein to target young people with impunity”.