WITH cuddly toys scattered around her, schoolgirl Becky* fixes her eyes on the screen in front of her as she’s directed to perform a series of sickening sexual acts by vile paedophiles.
The disturbing video of the youngster – who is thought to be 10 or 11 years old – is just one of many that analysts at The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a charity responsible for finding and removing online child sexual abuse content, have seen of her.
However, with no obvious clues to help uncover her identity, experts are powerless to help Becky – not her real name – as she’s repeatedly tricked and coerced by criminals into filming herself.
She is just one of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable kids being groomed and manipulated into recording themselves by organised “communities of predators”.
Now, the IWF has revealed it has removed more of this vile material from the internet than ever before, as the pandemic forces kids to remain indoors and spend longer hours online.
Last year alone, analysts processed 299,600 reports – up from 260,400 in 2019. Of these reports, 153,350 were confirmed as containing images and/or videos of children being sexually abused.
Shockingly, 68,000 of them included ‘self-generated’ child sexual abuse content – a 77% increase on 2019’s total of 38,400.
As the UK is thrown into another national lockdown, experts are now sharing their horrifying experiences of what they’ve seen, to warn parents of the dangers their kids are facing…
‘A grave and widespread threat to our children’
The IWF is particularly concerned that the current lockdown could trigger a fresh wave of child sexual abuse content appearing online.
And chief executive Susie Hargreaves says a relatively new trend has seen criminals working together in organised groups – posing an even bigger threat to kids.
“What was already a recognised phenomenon has now cemented into a grave and widespread threat to our children,” she says.
“You have a ‘perfect storm’ where you have children that are online so much longer each day, and criminals looking for children online and looking for child sexual abuse images.
“There is a large age range but the thing that’s absolutely shocking is that 79% of all the children we saw last year, in self-generated content, were girls aged 11-13.”
“There are whole online communities of sexual predators who devote themselves to finding and tracking down children on the internet, so as to bully and coerce them into abusing themselves sexually,” she adds.
“They’re sharing ideas of where to find children, then they trade images. It’s really nasty stuff.
People are obviously asking her to do things and right in the middle of this you hear someone shout, ‘dinner’s ready’.
“I’ve seen an awful lot of videos of kids aged 11 to 13, and as a mum myself, you want to reach in to the camera and say ‘oh my god, stop’. They’re absolutely unaware of what’s happening to them.”
Ms Hargreaves recalls one video in particular that will always haunt her, which showed a girl of around 11 to 13 lying naked on a bed in a “very smart” bedroom, engaging in Category A activity – defined as the most serious.
“People are obviously asking her to do things and right in the middle of this you hear someone shout, ‘dinner’s ready’,” she recalls.
It has echoes of Becky’s case, who analysts have seen appearing online – seemingly without her knowledge – repeatedly.
She either films herself in her bedroom, complete with fairy lights on the walls, or in her bathroom, so her family are unaware of what she’s doing.
The IWF describe how she can sometimes be seen pausing to read comments or instructions, before acting out what’s asked of her. One video even apparently showed her jumping after hearing a noise outside her bathroom.
It’s unclear if she’s even aware the livestreams are being recorded and shared online by the criminals.
‘You just want to scream out to warn them’
Someone else that has seen this shocking rise in the material over the last year is John*, a senior analyst at the IWF.
He spends every day sifting through thousands of reports made by the public, before watching the horrendous footage and determining which of the images and videos show minors.
He, along with his colleagues, then work to have the content removed as soon as possible, while scouring the footage for any clue as to who the victim might be so that they can alert local authorities.
“We’re always looking for visual clues, whether it’s accents, or what’s going on outside, that sort of thing,” he explains.
“There’s an awful lot of self-generated content now, primarily females between 11 and 13, so we’d be looking for clues of names given and anything visual. Any clues of where they are in the world or in the UK.”
John and his colleagues received extensive training for their roles, and are offered monthly counselling sessions – but he admits the horrifying content has a major impact on all of them.
“You’ve got to be shocked every time you see new content, as a human being. We all do this job because we want to do good,” he says.
“It does have an impact on you and you can’t help but be affected by it. It’s sickening, every time.
“It’s difficult as well because with some victims, you can physically see them growing up being abused.”
He recalls one particularly haunting memory of a child recording themself from behind the sofa, as their parents chatted nearby – completely oblivious to what was happening.
“You’re almost willing them to come in or look behind the sofa,” he says.
“It’s highly prevalent and parents need to know what their kids are doing online, it’s so important.”
He’s seen many more videos where adults’ voices can be heard from rooms nearby, clearly unaware of how their kids are being groomed so close by.
It does have an impact on you and you can’t help but be affected by it. It’s sickening, every time… It’s difficult as well because with some victims, you can physically see them growing up being abused.
John*, senior IWF analyst
“Another one saw a girl in a bathroom being groomed online, and she’s being asked to do more and more, and her mum was trying to come into the bathroom,” he recalls.
“She’s hadn’t locked the door, so the girl was frantically trying to wedge herself against the door to stop her mum coming in.
“We see that a lot and you just want to scream out to warn them what’s happening to their daughter. They’ve got no idea.”
‘These criminals are very manipulative’
John, along with Ms Hargreaves, is now pleading with parents to ensure they’re checking their kids’ online activity and seeking help, should they need it or are concerned.
“These criminals are very manipulative, and if you’re a vulnerable teenager that wants to be liked and popular, then if you’re bombarded with messages and love hearts and likes, it encourages it,” John says.
IWF’s advice to public when making a report
- Do report images and videos of child sexual abuse to the IWF to be removed. Reports to the IWF can be made anonymously.
- Do provide the exact URL where child sexual abuse images are located.
- Don’t report other harmful content – you can find details of other agencies to report to on the IWF’s website.
- Do report to the police if you are concerned about a child’s welfare,
- Do report only once for each web address – or URL. Repeat reporting of the same URL isn’t needed and wastes analysts’ time.
- Images and videos of online child sexual abuse can be reported to the IWF anonymously here.
The issue has become so widespread, MPs launched a national inquiry into the rise of ‘self-generated’ indecent images of children online last year.
Ms Hargreaves says: “Even though our hotline had to work at a reduced capacity at the start of the year due to precautionary measures against the coronavirus, our analysts have managed to remove more child sexual abuse material from the internet than ever before.
“Their incredible commitment to keeping the internet safe is something I am immensely proud of.
“Because of their work, I know we can fight against these criminals and help make the internet a safer place where we can enjoy all the benefits and where children can be kept safe from harm.”
Responding to IWF’s stats, Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “These shocking figures show the growing demand for these deeply disturbing and illegal images.
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“We must remember that behind every image is a child victim in need of support to recover from this horrific form of abuse.
“It is particularly alarming that almost half of child abuse content has been self-generated by children who have been coerced by perpetrators over the internet. This underlines the need for urgent regulation of the internet and the need to progress with the Online Safety Bill without delay.”
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please call the Samaritans on (free) 116123.
You can report illegal child sexual abuse material anonymously, and have it removed from the internet, by contacting the Internet Watch Foundation.
* Names have been changed to protect victims’ identities.