More than 300 million children a year face sexual abuse online, study suggests

More than 300 million children a year are victims of online sexual exploitation and abuse, according to research.

In what marks the first global estimate of the scale of the crisis, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found one in eight, or 12.6%, of the world’s children have been victims of non-consensual talking, sharing and exposure to sexual images and video in the past year, amounting to about 302 million young people.

In addition, 12.5% of children globally (300 million) are estimated to have been subject in the past year to online solicitation, such as unwanted sexual talk which can include non-consensual sexting, unwanted sexual questions and unwanted sexual act requests by adults or other youths.

Offences can also take the form of “sextortion”, where predators demand money from victims to keep images private, to abuse of AI deepfake technology.

While problems exist in all parts of the world, the research suggests the United States is a particularly high-risk area.

The university’s Childlight initiative – which aims to understand the prevalence of child abuse – includes a new global index, Into The Light, which found one in nine men in the US (almost 14 million) admitted online offending against children at some point.

Surveys found 7% of British men, or 1.8 million, admitted the same, as did 7.5% of men in Australia.

The research also found many men admitted they would seek to commit physical sexual offences against children if they thought it would be kept secret.

Childlight chief executive Paul Stanfield said: “This is on a staggering scale that in the UK alone equates to forming a line of male offenders that could stretch all the way from Glasgow to London – or filling Wembley Stadium 20 times over.

“Child abuse material is so prevalent that files are on average reported to watchdog and policing organisations once every second.

“This is a global health pandemic that has remained hidden for far too long. It occurs in every country, it’s growing exponentially, and it requires a global response.

“We need to act urgently and treat it as a public health issue that can be prevented. Children can’t wait”.

Millions of men have admitted online offending against children (Tim Goode/PA)

Debi Fry, a professor of international child protection at the university, said the issue affects children “in every classroom, in every school, in every country”.

She added: “These aren’t harmless images, they are deeply damaging, and the abuse continues with every view and the failure of taking down this abusive content.”

Stephen Kavanagh, executive director of Interpol, said: “Online exploitation and abuse is a clear and present danger to the world’s children, and traditional law enforcement approaches are struggling to keep up.

“We must do much more together at a global level, including specialist investigator training, better data sharing and equipment to effectively fight this pandemic and the harm it inflicts on millions of young lives around the world.”

Frida, whose name has been changed, is a survivor of online child sexual abuse and exploitation who was targeted through social media from the age of 13 to 18 by a man in his 30s.

She said: “It was a deeply isolating experience. I felt ashamed and that I had done something wrong.

Teenager on phone
The research has revealed the scale of the abuse of children online across the world (Alamy/PA)

“Childlight’s figures show that not only am I not alone in my experiences, but that more and more children are experiencing horrific abuse and exploitation online each day.

“Currently our understanding of abuse is often limited to what tech platforms are willing to share, rather than the reality of being exploited online.

“In order to understand and prevent harm we need to see ambitious regulation to hold these platforms to account and to see regulators equipped to work with the millions affected by this harm year on year”.

Grace Tame, another survivor, leads the Grace Tame Foundation which works to prevent and respond to sexual abuse of children.

She said: “Child sexual abuse is a global public health crisis that is steadily worsening thanks to advancing technologies which enable instantaneous production and limitless distribution of child exploitation material, as well as unregulated access to children online.

“A centralised global research database is essential to safeguarding children. Narrative and knowledge are frequently weaponised by child sex offenders to groom, offend, and evade justice.

“Childlight will restrict their capabilities by restoring power to the rest of the community.”

Scottish children and young people minister Natalie Don said: “Keeping children and young people safe from sexual abuse and exploitation is of the utmost importance to the Scottish Government and we are working closely with key partners to improve our knowledge of and response to these deeply concerning issues.

“These are global problems which require global solutions and I welcome the much needed work of Childlight to harness worldwide data to help develop tangible action to protect children.”