Behaviour of both offenders and victims affected by measures to contain the pandemic
Under-reporting of child sexual abuse and increased sharing of child exploitation material through peer-topeer networks are among the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic according to an INTERPOL assessment.
The report highlights the trends and threats in the current context compared to pre-pandemic measures, what impact these are having in the short-term, and what changes are likely to happen as COVID-19 restrictions are changed.
“What the report shows is that we are seeing just the tip of a growing iceberg in terms of online child exploitation material,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock, “It is important to remember that each photo and video of child sexual abuse is evidence of a real crime involving real children. Each time an image is viewed those children are re-victimized and their very real suffering is prolonged even further.”
“We must do more to make sure that the officers investigating these horrific crimes have the support they need, which is where cooperation through INTERPOL plays a vital role in fighting this transnational crime,” added the INTERPOL Chief.
Key environmental, social and economic factor changes due to COVID-19 which have impacted child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) across the world include:
- Closure of schools and subsequent movement to virtual learning environments;
- Increased time children spend online for entertainment, social and educational purposes;
- Restriction of international travel and the repatriation of foreign nationals;
- Limited access to community support services, child care and educational personnel who often play a key role in detecting and reporting cases of child sexual exploitation.
With this increase in obstacles for victims to report offences or access support, there are concerns that some offending may never be reported after a substantial delay.
Forums on the Darknet
Other findings include increased discussions on CSEA forums on the Darknet. Sex offenders with the technical expertise to administrate forums have had more time to create new ones, whilst users have benefited from additional time online to organize their CSEA collections.
Live-streaming of child sexual exploitation for payment has seen an increase in recent years, with demand likely to further increase due to travel restrictions. The supply of livestreamed CSEA material is also likely to rise as victims may be locked down with facilitators, and economic hardship increases.
In areas severely affected by COVID-19, situations where parents are hospitalized and children are placed under others’ care or are uncared for, are also likely to increase the risk of abuse.
An increase in self-generated material distributed on the clear net is also highlighted in the report.
Delayed reporting of abuse
The COVID-19 impact on policing includes:
- A reduction or delay in reporting of CSEA offences as normal channels are affected;
- A reduction in the use of the INTERPOL International Child Sexual Exploitation database by member countries;
- A reduction in specialized human resources, usually addressing CSEA investigations, and diverted to other activities in relation to the pandemic;
- Changes in processes and efficiency due to technical constraints of working-from-home which has impacted both law enforcement and electronic service providers reporting cases to law enforcement;
- Court closures leading to delays in processing cases.
Recommendations for law enforcement to address the additional threats presented by the COVID-19 pandemic include:
- Create prevention and awareness campaigns for victims and guardians relating to the risk of CSEA online including through gaming, messaging and social media platforms.
- Conduct incident mapping exercises across schools to identify emerging issues relating to CSEA, for example ‘zoom bombing’ incidents.
- Ensure hotlines remain open and staffed and consider additional ways for offences to be flagged such as free texting services, integrated reporting channels for children through gaming, social media and messaging services.
- Regularly share information related to online CSEA with INTERPOL which can support and coordinate investigations across different jurisdictions.