Online sexual exploitation of 7-10 year olds exploded in 2021 with a 3x increase according to new data from The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). This increase was part of a record-breaking number of child sexual abuse images — sometimes called child pornography — they reviewed. IWF reviewed more child sexual abuse images in 2021 than the previous 15 years combined.
Parents should know that any child who has access to social media and online platforms is at risk for grooming and sexual exploitation, even children who parents may consider “too young” to be in danger. Parents are urged to keep kids under 13 off social media and carefully monitor online activity for teens.
- Online sexual abuse is increasingly common. 1 in 3 young adults reports having an unwelcome sexual interaction online before they turned 18, and 1 in 4 children report that an adult has had a sexual interaction with them online.
- Grooming and sexual exploitation affects elemetary school-aged children. 1 in 5 9-12 year-olds report being asked for “nudes” or other sexual acts online.
- Younger children are extremely vulnerable to grooming. Reports of online grooming and enticement—someone communicating with a child online for the purposes of sexual abuse or exploitation—nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020 as kids spent more time online.
- Sharing sexual images—often at the direction or request of an adult—is being normalized: There has been an explosion in sexual images produced by kids, often at an adult’s request or direction. The majority are of 11-13 year old girls, with 7-10 year old girls the fastest-growing group. 40% of kids say sending nudes is “normal”.
ParentsTogether, a community of more than 2.5 million parents that offers parenting news and resources, advises parents to take the following steps to reduce their children’s risks online— all online experiences come with some health and safety risks.
- Talk your children about online sexual abuse and nude images early and often: Age-appropriate conversations should begin as soon as children are spending time online independently—as young as 7 or 8. Tell kids they can always talk to you about problems online. Set the expectation that your kids can share things they see or hear online that make them feel weird, upset, curious, or scared, and that doing so won’t make you angry or make them lose access to their device.
- Keep young children off social media: The minimum age for most social media sites is 13 for a reason—younger children may not be developmentally ready for full access to social media and the risks associated with it. Delaying access to social media and educating children about the risks and benefits can help them have a safer experience.
- Set parental controls and limits: Parental controls aren’t perfect, but they can keep kids away from some inappropriate contact and content. Parents may also want to block certain apps or sites, limit the amount of time kids can spend online, and charge devices at night in a common area outside your child’s bedroom.
While parents are a critical part of keeping kids safe online, tech platforms also need to address the massive and growing problem of online child sexual abuse. The IWF data is Europe-centric data about an international problem, which US-based tech companies have a unique opportunity to protect children from. ParentsTogether recommends tech platforms take the following steps to prevent online predators abusing kids:
- Enforce age limits: Most social media platforms’ terms of service say they are for 13+, but are used by millions of younger children. Platforms can help prevent abuse of the youngest and most vulnerable kids by keeping them off the platforms until they are 13.
- Don’t allow strangers to contact kids: Children’s accounts should be private by default, and platforms should put in additional protections to prevent strangers from being able to contact kids.
- Find and report sexual images: Platforms should invest in both human and technical solutions to detect sexual images of children and report them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or Internet Watch Foundation.