A frightening ‘new normal’ – alert as online abuse soars

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The legacy of Covid-19 lockdown is a frightening ‘new normal’ for the online grooming and sexual abuse of young people, with many images and videos being created by the victims themselves. Schools must be on alert. Pete Henshaw reports


The mission of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is to help victims of child sexual abuse by “identifying and removing online images and videos of their abuse”. In 2021, the IWF took action on more reports of online child abuse material than during the first 15 years of its existence (IWF, 2022a).

This includes removing a “record-breaking” 252,000 URLs which it confirmed contained images or videos of children being raped and/or suffering sexual abuse. This equates to millions of individual images and videos.

Disturbingly, 182,281 of the URLs contained images or videos of “self-generated” material. This compares to 38,424 such cases in 2019. So-called “self-generated” material has been made by a child themselves on a webcam-enabled device. The victims have often been tricked, bullied, or coerced into performing sexual acts by an adult who has groomed them online.

Furthermore, IWF data published in its annual report last month (IWF, 2022b) shows that 97% of all child sexual abuse material identified in 2021 featured the sexual abuse of girls. Ten years ago, 65% of the imagery analysts saw was of girls.

Furthermore, sexual abuse imagery of children aged 11 to 13 is most prevalent, accounting for almost 70% of the cases in 2021.

And six in 10 of the reports included the sexual abuse of an 11 to 13-year-old girl who had been groomed, coerced or encouraged into sexual activities by someone not in the room with the girl – meaning they have accessed the child via a camera and internet-enabled device.

The IWF works with internet companies, governments, and others to find and remove this material. In total in 2021, its analysts investigated 361,062 reports of suspected criminal material. This is more than it dealt with in the first 15 years of its existence when, from 1996 to 2011, it assessed 335,558 reports.

Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said the pandemic and associated lockdowns have created a “new normal”, with sexual abusers exploiting people who have shifted their lives online.

She said: “The pandemic has continued to impact teenagers’ social lives, with many spending more time than ever online. Living online has become the new normal. Unfortunately, this means more children are at risk. Sexual abusers will target children – girls in particular – and manipulate them into performing sexual acts on camera. These images are then shared across the internet, with the devastating result of revictimising the child every time they are viewed.

“Sadly, we are seeing the targeting of girls accelerating. The latest figures are a stark reflection of the society we live in.”


A safeguarding priority

Writing in SecEd earlier this year, safeguarding expert Elizabeth Rose advised schools and DSLs to review their approaches to issues of online safety and abuse in light of the changing trends and IWF data (Rose, 2022). She identified priorities including ensuring clear leadership for whole-school approaches to online safety.

She said that while dedicated drop-down days or one-off events such as Safer Internet Day in February can be effective, these should not be the only teaching opportunities on offer.

Clear training in line with the Keeping children safe in education statutory guidance (DfE, 2021), the use of filtering and monitoring software, and ensuring online safety is reflected in the child protection policy are also key.


Everyone’s Invited

Our wider response to the IWF data must include how we are responding as a society to the Everyone’s Invited revelations, according to Ms Hargeaves.

She explained: “When you look at this over the past 10 years it tells a story about the tastes and preferences of the people who are creating the market-place for this material. We need to be asking ourselves about how this relates to the violence we see against women and girls in our society, and the experiences that have been shared through Everyone’s Invited.”

For schools, this includes the response to Ofsted’s subsequent review of peer-on-peer sexual harassment, which uncovered an epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse targeting girls in schools and colleges (2021).

Its core recommendation was that school leaders act now and act quickly, taking the assumption that sexual harassment is taking place. The report says: “Nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. Children and young people told us that sexual harassment occurs so frequently that it has become ‘commonplace’. The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal.”

School leaders told inspectors that easy access to pornography had set “unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships and shaped perceptions of women and girls”.


A curriculum priority

As such, a key part of the safeguarding response comes in what we teach and how we help young people to stay safe online and to develop healthy expectations for their relationships.

The relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum is now statutory (DfE, 2019) and includes topics related to this area, not least healthy relationships, consent, and teaching about online risks, the “rules and principles for keeping safe online”, and “how to recognise risks and harmful content”.

In her article earlier this year, Ms Rose added: “Online safety can be included across all areas of the curriculum, and we should consider the 4Cs and how these can be woven into the approach to online safety across different subjects, as well as taught explicitly.”

The 4Cs, as listed in KCSIE 2021, are content (being exposed to harmful content online), contact (harmful interaction online), conduct (personal online conduct that causes harm), and commerce (risks such as gambling or scams). Ms Rose explained that the 4Cs “help us to categorise risk into main areas to be addressed”. And this does not solely have to be in RSHE but could also be woven into the curriculum in other subjects, such as a text in English that deals with peer pressure, or other opportunities such as assemblies, tutor times, or clubs.


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