The growing problems of grooming and child sexual exploitation

While lockdown measures seek to make us all safer, sadly, for some vulnerable children and young people, the opposite is true - and during the first week of the year, when schools were closed, we detected more safeguarding incidents than any other week in our 12-year history.

Our latest analysis*, of the incidents we've recently escalated to our schools and colleges, gives insight into the trending safeguarding risks - and the serious nature of the challenges facing safeguarding professionals right now.  Of the reported incidents in our monitored sample,

  • 61% involved children and young people talking to strangers, on chat platforms like Omegle.
  • 42% were image based incidents.  This means the evidence of safeguarding risk was found in moving imagery (such as webcam activity) and in static imagery (photographs and illustrations).  Much of this image-based evidence pointed to the users viewing/sharing pornography or sexting. 

This insight corroborates the warning from expert bodies in the field, including the NCA and the NSPCC, about the heightened risk of children and young people being approached or groomed by strangers online - and that (with schools in the UK being forced to close once again) organised “communities of sex predators” are looking for opportunities to coerce, groom and exploit more children and share child sexual abuse material online.

In their latest report, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF - the UK charity responsible for finding and removing images of child sexual abuse from the internet) warns about the “grave and widespread threat” to children in their bedrooms from predatory online groomers, as they highlight the record-breaking scale of child sexual abuse imagery on the internet in 2020.  This report also reveals a dramatic 77% increase in the amount of “self-generated” abuse material – including content that has been created using webcam, often in the child’s own bedroom - as more children, and more criminals, spend longer online. In many cases, children are groomed, threatened or deceived into producing and sharing a video of themselves.  This has become such a concern that a national inquiry into the rise of “self-generated” indecent images of children online has now been launched and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media’s inquiry - “Selfie Generation: What’s behind the rise of self-generated indecent images of children online? " - will investigate the causes behind this phenomenon and recommend ways to combat it.

* Analysis of all (5454) reported safeguarding incidents in three local authorities, between October and December 2020. 

The step from one safeguarding concern to another is more fluid than ever before

While the online behaviour of children and young people has changed and evolved in response to lockdown measures, the evidence the team at eSafe is seeing everyday points to the formation of new online habits - that have become ingrained and normalised over the course of the pandemic and very likely to continue when we emerge from this.  Furthermore, the strong 'domino effect' we are already seeing in respect of surges in related safeguarding risks - for example, young people talking to strangers morphing into young people being groomed and exploited - means that what may appear to be a high volume of relatively low level safeguarding risks on the surface will, without timely intervention, often lead onto serious and lasting risks to welfare and wellbeing.  The step from one safeguarding concern to another is now more fluid than ever, with many young people not being aware of what is happening until it's too late. 

This domino effect - the pathway that can lead from one event to another when intervention doesn't happen - and the impact on the individual, is well evidenced and documented.  

Early intervention and support to modify concerning behaviours - and encourage digital resilience - is so important for  keeping young people safe from harm and improving their overall welfare and wellbeing.  That's why the team at eSafe is highly trained to find the (often subtle) early warning signs of an individual at risk from harm.

eSafe gives the early visibility of safeguarding risks that school and college leaders need to create a safe and positive environment.  If you'd like a chat about how eSafe can help your school or college thrive, contact us here.

NEW InsightLab analysis 

The increasing prevalence of serious safeguarding risks that are only evident in video-chat.

When the team in our Insightlab analysed 5454 safeguarding incidents that had been reported across three local authorities, between 1st October and 31st December 2020, they found that almost 40% of all image based evidence was detected on webcam activity.  This activity was probably happening from the users’ bedrooms and wouldn't have been evident anywhere else. 

Without eSafe, this behaviour would have been invisible: eSafe is the only monitoring solution that can detect risks within static and moving imagery that isn’t accompanied with descriptive copy, thanks to our highly advanced Pure Image Detection Technology.

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse where offenders use their power over a child or young person – potentially using a false identity – to abuse them in a sexual or emotional way and is a real and growing  threat for children and young people (of all ages and backgrounds).

It can be difficult to identify - and there is an exponentially higher chance of successful, positive outcomes for the individual when the earliest signs are acted up – which is why our specialist behaviour analysts are highly trained to identify the subtle, earliest warning signs and behaviours in digital activity. 

Good to know

Some of the warning signs that a young person is being groomed online are in the home environment:

  • Receiving lots of messages from someone they only know online.
  • Talking a lot about a particular person they only know online.
  • Reluctance to talk about what they’ve been doing – or lying about it.
  • Stopping talking about their thoughts and feelings. 
  • Spending more time alone in their bedroom.

For more information and resources, visit Childnet

“This year, our analysts have warned there are whole online communities of sexual predators who devote themselves to finding and tracking down children on the internet, so as to bully and coerce them into abusing themselves sexually."

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive, IWF