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COVID-19 Likely Led to a Spike in Online Child Exploitation. Here's Why We Need to Take Action.


This story was produced in collaboration with Purpose Union, a specialist agency of strategists united by the belief that the world is better off when companies and organisations think, act, and communicate with a defined social purpose.


Among the many socioeconomic concerns brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic, another disturbing trend over the past several months of quarantine is a spike in reports of online child sexual exploitation. 

According to the US-based nonprofit the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), the organisation’s CyberTipline has received a 106% increase in reports of suspected child sexual exploitation — rising from 983,734 reports in March 2019 to 2,027,520 in the same month this year. 

This spike is likely due to a number of side effects of the pandemic. First, government-mandated lockdowns around the world have meant that everyone, including children, has been confined to their homes and using the internet in record volumes. Many young people who would otherwise be at school are now spending more time unsupervised online, thus leaving them vulnerable to perpetrators seeking to groom and exploit them. Additionally, economic fallout from the crisis or cases of increased domestic abuse due to the lockdowns may force children into vulnerable situations where they are more accessible to human traffickers and other abusers. 

Importantly, however, these issues were not created by the COVID-19 crisis; it has only shed light on the dangers that have been growing steadily for years.

At Global Citizen we believe that one of the most harmful effects of extreme global poverty is the increased risk of child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSEA) online.

Related Stories Sept. 25, 2019 This Is the Surprising Reason Child Sexual Abuse Is on the Rise

The Economist Intelligence Unit has published a report called Out of the Shadows, looking at how children are protected all over the world by laws and governments. It’s clear from this report that while children from disadvantaged backgrounds and developing countries are most at risk, no child is immune.  

Now more than ever, as cases reach record highs, we believe that action is urgently needed.

Prior to the widespread rise of COVID-19, Global Citizen and the Economist Intelligence Unit brought together experts from Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and SuperAwesome for a special breakfast event on Jan. 21, organised alongside the Education World Forum.

The event, “Out of the Shadows: A Spotlight on Effective Strategies to Prevent Child Sexual Exploitation Online and in Schools,” provided a platform for industry leaders on ways to improve child protection online (CPO) and end CSEA in schools around the world.

The panel and roundtable event took place in Westminster, at the heart of the UK government, and came during the Education World Forum, where government and business leaders gathered to discuss best practices and trends for improving the quality of young people’s education all over the world.

When facing an issue that affects children online, the role of technology companies in fighting CSEA is huge — which is why it’s crucial that government and industry leaders have the opportunity to come together.

The “Out of the Shadows” event was an opportunity for industry leaders to debate in public the sorts of changes needed to make CPO a larger part of the global fight to protect the rights of children, and make CSEA history. It was also an opportunity for those leaders to discuss how Global Citizens could help in campaigning efforts to change global policies to achieve those goals.

Attendees were briefed on Global Citzen’s campaigning activities globally, and on the importance of the Out of the Shadows Index to assess global approaches to CSEA reduction.

At the beginning of the panel discussion, Talia Fried, Global Citizen's senior manager of global policy & government affairs, and Katherine Stewart, a consultant from the Economist Intelligence Unit, introduced the event, the Out of the Shadows Index, and the importance of the tech industry coming together with one voice on these important issues.

The panel consisted of three experts: David Miles, EMEA safety policy director at Facebook and member of the WeProtect Global Alliance; Emma Green, director of Safe to Learn at the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children; and Craig Donaghy, head of community insight and child safety at SuperAwesome.

The conversation was wide-ranging, with the discussion centering around the importance of creating moderated child-first spaces online where young people can talk and post in safety, as well as the importance of age verification online.

Related Stories Nov. 15, 2019 Tech Companies Are Failing to Stop Online Sexual Abuse, NYT Report Reveals

Speakers commented on the vital steps the UK government has taken so far to improve CPO, but stressed the importance of continuing to strengthen legislation, as well as working with other global partners to fight CSEA in the developing world, where much of the exploitative content shared online is created. The panel also spoke of the importance of viewing CSEA issues holistically.

After a session of questions from the audience, hosted by broadcaster and journalist Joy Lo Dico, the event moved to an “off-the-record” roundtable, where tech industry figures could speak frankly to each other and Global Citizen about what changes could be made to improve protections to children online. The meeting concluded with representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok agreeing to continue to keep moving forward to improve children’s protections online.

“The Out of the Shadows Index is very useful, and there are a couple of things that I want to draw attention to … It highlights the ubiquity of this kind of content; it also recognises how boys are often overlooked … and it points to legislation as a key area for development, too,” said Miles, of Facebook, speaking on the importance of this event and how organisations can work together to protect children online and in schools.

“There is an obligation for governments to legislate in this area to show that behaviour like this is abhorrent,” he continued. “Furthermore, we must look at this challenge in the round, taking a local approach to this, ensuring that all the stakeholders that can influence this are involved.”

In the months since this event and with the rise of COVID-19, these words ring truer and more urgent than ever. Even as regions begin to come out of immediate lockdown, the “new normal” post-COVID-19 will very likely maintain historically high levels of internet usage and accessibility. While there are many positives to this development, the risks of increased CSEA must be addressed in the most efficient and effective ways possible.

If you are a UK citizen and want to join the fight against child sexual exploitation and abuse online, take action here to send an email to the UK Parliament, urging them to act as quickly and strongly as possible to ensure that the UK does its part in ending CSEA.