Newborn babies and toddlers are among the victims of the most severe online sexual abuse, with the amount of the most extreme material doubling in the last two years, a new report has found.
In 2022, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) took action to remove or block 51,369 web pages containing Category A child sexual abuse material.
The amount of extreme content has doubled since 2020 when the IWF uncovered 20,050 pages of Category A abuse. In 2022 the total number of URLs containing this extreme abuse was higher than the organisation had ever seen before.
Category A is the most severe kind of imagery and includes the worst kinds of sexual abuse.
The younger the child involved, the more extreme the abuse was likely to be, the report found. Of the images found of children aged up to two years old, 81% were of Category A abuse.
This compared to 50% of material relating to children aged three to six, 20% of those aged seven to 10 and 17% of those aged 11 to 13.
Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF chief executive officer, told Sky News their analysts are seeing more and more children being abused – and they are getting younger.
“I continue to be shocked, after 12 years, that the worst level of abuse was on new-borns to 2-year-olds. And that is the most vulnerable children who have absolutely no chance of defending themselves, being preyed upon and abused by adults,” she said.
“People need to realise this is very serious nasty stuff.”
Proportionally, Category A material now accounts for 20% of all the content the IWF sees – up from 18% in 2021, and 17% in 2020. The organisation both takes reports from the public and proactively searches for content.
‘Many don’t know they’re being filmed’
Many of these children, the IWF said, don’t even realise they are being filmed and they said the amount of self-generated content has grown, showing children who have been coerced into acts by a remote abuser.
Writing in the report, Ms Hargreaves said: “We’ve always been careful not to describe in detail what we see as we don’t want to upset people, but we’re starting to believe that we have to start being more upfront and honest about the extent of the abuse we find, as the public needs to realise that we are talking about 7-year-olds, naked… under the direction and coercion of nasty, manipulative individuals.”
She told Sky News that while the organisation doesn’t make a judgement on wider pornography, referring to the images as “child porn” is wrong.
She said: “It’s not helpful for people to call it… ‘child porn’ because it minimises the impact of the abuse on these children.”
Far from a victimless crime, she urged people to remember there are real children at the heart of this.
She said she once met a “very brave survivor” who was rescued at the age of 12 and was now 20 years old.
“She had someone come up to her in a shopping centre and say, ‘I’ve seen your pictures online’,” she said. “She said to me, ‘I feel physically scared every day’.
“So let’s call it what it is, this is the abuse of children who are the most vulnerable, who we should be protecting.”
Hiding ‘in plain sight’
In 2022, the organisation assessed a web page every 90 seconds – every two minutes, that web page showed a child being sexually abused.
Criminals are commercialising the sexual abuse and exploitation of children – but it is no longer confined to the dark web.
Rosa*, an internet content analyst at the IWF, said: “It is disturbing how matter-of-fact these sites are. Child sexual abuse is treated like a commodity on these sites.”
She added: “People are now only one click away from Category A material. That is a public safety issue. This extreme material is no longer in the creepy corners of the internet. It’s in plain sight.”
But these sites are typically not hosted by mainstream hosting companies, instead mainly being found on servers in little-known companies based in Europe or Asia.
Less than 1% is held on UK servers, in part because legislation means sites can be removed within minutes, making them less viable for criminals looking to profit from the online abuse of children.
But it is still British children being abused, and with criminals forced to host it outside the UK it makes it harder to get it taken down.
“These are children in bedrooms, and often [analysts] will hear the parents and domestic noises in the background so parents may think that they’re safe,” says Ms Hargreaves.
A message to those viewing online abuse
Ian Critchley, the NPCC lead for child protection and abuse investigations, said: “The rise in the most severe offending being found is deeply disturbing – not only are all internet users far more likely to be exposed to this harmful material, but it demonstrates once again how criminals have no regard for the life-long harm it causes these children.
“If you are viewing such material, be in no doubt – this is not a victimless crime. These are real children.”
He added: “If you read this, and are concerned about your own thoughts and behaviour, you can stop. The consequences of offending can last a lifetime. Seek help, now.”
Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said: “Child sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime. It is paramount that the perpetrators of this abuse are identified and brought to justice. The Internet Watch Foundation’s work is vital in tackling child sexual abuse material online, and cracking down on offenders who seek to profit from young people’s pain.”
He added: “Most importantly, companies need to ensure that features such as end-to-end encryption have the necessary safety features built in so that they do not blind themselves to abuse occurring on their platforms.”
* Names have been changed
If you are concerned about child sexual abuse and would like to find a way to report it, visit Stop Abuse Together or the Internet Watch Foundation.