The number of primary school children blackmailed or tricked into producing sexual images has more than quadrupled since lockdown, new figures show.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a charity which works with companies to remove child abuse images, revealed it had found almost 20,000 pages of sexual abuse images in the first half of this year that had been “self-generated” by seven- to 10-year-olds.
The 19,670 pages of sexual images – often created by the children in the privacy of their bedrooms – represent a 360 per cent increase on the 4,277 uncovered in the same period in 2020 and a 66 per cent rise on last year’s 11,873.
Susie Hargreaves, the chief executive of the IWF, warned that the rapid growth in such content from primary school-aged children amounted to a “social and digital emergency” that required urgent action by the Government, the tech industry, law enforcement, teachers and charities.
Police chiefs said that the scale of the increase was “shocking” as Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, pledged that law enforcement would have the “unequivocal” backing of the Government to “go after these disgusting offenders”.
Experts attribute the sharp increase to more young children going online during lockdown, as well as the fact that they may be targeted by paedophiles because they are more easily manipulated.
“Children are not to blame. They are often being coerced, tricked or pressured by sexual abusers on the internet,” said Ms Hargreaves.
“Child sexual abuse which is facilitated and captured by technology using an internet connection does not require the abuser to be physically present, and most often takes place when the child is in their bedroom – a supposedly ‘safe space’ in the family home.
“Therefore, it should be entirely preventable. We need to attack this criminality from several directions, including providing parents and carers with support to have positive discussions around technology use and sexual abuse, within the home.”
She added: “Only when the education of parents, carers and children comes together with efforts by tech companies, the Government, police and third sector, can we hope to stem the tide of this criminal imagery. That is why the Online Safety Bill is so essential.”
The number of images of children aged 11 to 13 tricked into providing self-generated pictures also doubled since 2019, from 27,090 to 56,179.
It jumped by 151 per cent for those aged 16 to 19, and 36 per cent for those aged 14 to 15, although for both those two age groups the number of webpages with sexual abuse images was fewer than 2,000.
Ms Patel said: “The cruelty and inhumanity of people who abuse children is appalling. Since becoming Home Secretary, I have been unequivocal in my backing of law enforcement to go after those disgusting offenders who abuse children both in the UK and abroad.”
Deputy Chief Constable Ian Critchley, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead for child protection, said: “The scale of the rise in this imagery should shock us all.
“We need companies and platforms to fulfil their moral obligations – and under the Online Safety Bill, their legal duty – to keep the online communities they create as safe as possible.”
The top five sites used to store and distribute self-generated child sexual abuse imagery of seven- to 10-year-olds in the first half of 2022 were new and bespoke, suggesting that paedophiles could be financially exploiting the new market.
An analyst at the IWF, said: “Every day, I see children who have been asked to remove their clothes, stand naked or perform in front of a camera. This happens in their bedrooms, mostly, where we see toys, laundry baskets, posters on walls, teddy bears and wardrobes full of clothes.”