2021 was worst year on record for online child sexual abuse, says IWF

A child using a laptop computer.
Younger and younger children are being targeted by internet groomers, the research found. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Internet grooming of children has surged during lockdown, according to new research that found a threefold increase in online sexual abuse imagery featuring seven to 10-year-olds.

The Internet Watch Foundation reported its worst year on record for child sexual abuse online in 2021 as it confirmed 252,000 URLs containing images or videos of children being sexually abused, compared with 153,000 in the previous year. The UK-based charity said it had seen a large increase in self-generated material – where children are manipulated into recording their own abuse before it is shared online – with the fastest growing increase in such material occurring among seven to 10-year-olds.

The IWF said the rise in cases could be linked to Covid lockdowns which required people to stay indoors and led to millions spending more time online. It said lockdowns led to younger and younger children being targeted on an “industrial scale” by internet groomers.

“Child safety experts say younger children have been relying more and more on the internet during the pandemic, and that spending longer online may be leaving them more vulnerable to communities of criminals who are looking to find and manipulate children into recording their own sexual abuse on camera. The footage is then shared among other criminals on the open internet,” said the IWF report.

In 2021, the IWF reported 182,000 instances of self-generated material. Of these confirmed cases 27,000 were seven to 10-year-olds, which is more than treble the number for 2020. Once the IWF confirms that reports of abuse – largely from members of the public, the police, tech firms or IWF analysts themselves – are genuine, they are reported to authorities in countries where the servers hosting the content are based. The IWF said the biggest age group for self-generated sexual abuse material remained 11- to 13-year-olds, with 148,000 reports made to the organisation last year.

“Children are being targeted, approached, groomed and abused by criminals on an industrial scale,” said Susie Hargreaves, IWF chief executive. “So often, this sexual abuse is happening in children’s bedrooms in family homes, with parents being wholly unaware of what is being done to their children by strangers with an internet connection.”

On Thursday the House of Commons will debate a report by a joint committee of MPs and peers into the draft online safety bill, which imposes a duty of care on tech firms to protect children from harmful content, as well as preventing the proliferation of illegal content and activity such as child pornography. Responding to the IWF figures, the head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, Andy Burrows, said it was “crucial” that the bill is strengthened to prevent online grooming of children.

The figures were released as the UK government launched a new online safety campaign, Stop Abuse Together, to help parents and carers spot signs of abuse. The safeguarding minister, Rachel Maclean, said: “Keeping children safe is one of this government’s highest priorities and we are committed to doing all we can to combat the increased identification of child sexual abuse online.”