Over the last few years, research about child sexual exploitation and abuse online has received increased attention, particularly as our lives shifted further online during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the picture remains decidedly unclear – particularly in lower- and middle-income countries where research continues to be limited. Furthermore, opportunities for children to directly contribute to the dialogue on this issue are rare. There is little research directly conveying survivor experiences of child sexual exploitation and abuse in all its forms, including when digital technology is involved. Yet growing numbers of children are being supported around the world for such experiences. It is essential that those with lived experience are given the opportunity to participate in the investigation into the response, in order to improve the prevention and disruption activities and support offered to children.
The increasing problem of child sexual exploitation and abuse online requires detailed, extensive and sustained attention. Specific evidence about the availability, quality and effectiveness of support services will enable targeted responses in which governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector can cooperate to address this problem. Including the perspectives of survivors in the research bridges the conspicuous gaps in evidence usually present. With these issues in mind, this multi-country research project was undertaken through a partnership of the WeProtect Global Alliance, ECPAT International and six of its network member organisations. The research was conceived to centre the perspectives of survivors on the availability, quality and effectiveness of support services for survivors of child sexual exploitation and abuse online.
Frequency of child sexual exploitation and abuse online in caseloads
Across the types of issues that child protection workers were facing, forms of child sexual exploitation and abuse with an online element were indicated in 18% of their total caseloads. This means that one in five children they were supporting had related concerns. It is noted this was a convenience sample, and organisations supporting issues related to child abuse were targeted for participation in the survey, yet this is still a strong indication of the extent of this concern at the frontline. Under-reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as the under-identification of the role of technology and the Internet in cases, may also be an issue.
Girls were more frequently identified as being subjected to sexual exploitation and abuse online, with about 54% of workers saying that online forms of child sexual exploitation and abuse were emerging in ‘more than half’ of their cases with girls.
Workers suggested that boys were less frequently affected. Most indicated that they saw this issue in less than a quarter of their cases with boys. Yet this is still a higher indication than what is generally expected.
“Most of the cases of victims of exploitation concern girls, but we should point out that the number of boys is also on the rise.”(Survey Respondent from Albania)
Frontline workers indicated that offenders in the cases they encountered were overwhelmingly male, yet female offenders were indicated roughly 20% of the time. There were no statistically significant differences across the six countries in this regard. Qualitative data from the workers and young people suggested that the women involved may be facilitating abuse carried out by others – coercing, manipulating and grooming children into situations of abuse. However, emerging research, such as within ECPAT International’s Global Boys Initiative,5 also indicates that the role of women as offenders may be under-recognised. While such findings need further exploration, a key insight is that interventions should focus on males as the predominant offenders, but should not forget to consider the roles women may play as facilitators and offenders.
Furthermore, offenders were overwhelmingly (86%) from the same country as victims. The most common relationships between offenders and victims were parents/step-parents, other relatives, and family friends. These common relationships indicate that while commonly held perceptions tend to frame sexual exploitation and abuse both online and offline in terms of ‘stranger danger’, in reality children face more frequent risk of harm from people within their circles of trust.
“The perpetrators of the violence are mostly close relatives, fathers to daughters, stepfather to wife’s daughter, male authorities to girls.” (Survey Respondent from Bosnia and Herzegovina)
People in positions of power – such as teachers – were noted, particularly by the survivors, amongst the offenders and they sometimes demonstrated highly organised approaches to their abuse:
“A victim was captured in the fourth grade and one in sixth grade; in other words, there was always one per generation, being the victims more evident every two generations, so that while one was already in college, he would have someone from high school.” (Conversations’ Participant 9, Mexico)
Mechanisms of control
According to the surveyed frontline workers, money was exchanged in order to enable child sexual exploitation and abuse online in around half of instances. But there were also other frequent mechanisms; offenders used a range of strategies to coerce and control young people. For example, some of the survivors in Colombia explained that at first they did not realise they were experiencing exploitation or abuse, but later became aware that their supposed friend or partner was actually an adult offender exploiting them in exchange for gifts. In another example of control, according to the frontline workers, a common form of exchange for Peruvian boys subjected to sexual exploitation was the provision of shelter.
Silence as complicity
Another form of facilitation, albeit based on inaction and/or omission, was also evident in the data from frontline workers. Across the six countries, instances of ignoring child sexual exploitation and abuse despite being aware it was happening, were noted by participants as an enabling factor for abuse to occur.
“Adults who are aware of the abuse, but prefer to remain silent.” (Survey Respondent from Colombia)
Disclosures and formal reporting
Largely, young people indicated that before being subjected to sexual exploitation or abuse online, they had very little awareness of the formal reporting mechanisms 6 that were available.
“There is no information on how to report. The girls and boys don’t report, it scares them, because of the process they are going to face because it involves ‘destroying the castle that you had built’” (Conversations’ Participant 6, Colombia)
Throughout the report we use the phrase ‘formal reporting mechanisms’ to describe avenues for making formal reports of abuse or exploitation such as police, hotlines and child protection services. ‘Formally reporting’ is distinguished in the report from ‘disclosure’ which can include informally raising concerns with peers or caregivers.
The Colombian young people consistently noted that a major factor in enabling their comfort to disclose such intensely personal experiences was indications of genuine interest in their wellbeing from people they trusted – professionals, friends and relatives. They commonly expressed that this first factor of having at least one key supporter who believed and non-judgmentally cared for them enabled them to begin processes to escape exploitative situations and access protection and support services. In contrast, others who did not have a trusted adult explained that even if they did know about formal mechanisms to report, that without support, they were simply not ready to talk about it. Others said that some structures actively discourage reporting – for example adult support is frequently expected (both formally and informally) in order to file a legal complaint.
Another important issue that emerged was failure to secure anonymity, sometimes in dramatic ways. In Albania, the personal data and statements (city, street, initials, names of parents, the name of the school, interviews showing the face of parents, pictures of their houses) of five survivors had been published by the media. These kinds of incidents have major repercussions – with other survivors observing these circumstances losing any trust in institutions. It is both damaging to those impacted, and also likely leads to other victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse online withholding their disclosures.
“What kept me from going to the police was a case that became public a long time ago,
in which the media published the name of the school, the city, the age, faces of family members, school teachers and lots of other details, and as a child I remember being distressed by this whole thing. This kept me from reporting it sooner, because I was afraid that maybe my case would be in the media as well. As a matter of fact, this fear came true because the same thing happened to me when I reported it!” (Conversations’ Participant 9, Albania)
A recurrent issue from the young survivors’ accounts of disclosure were the perceived shortcomings of the police who are entrusted with receiving their complaints:
“The girl who admitted me told me ‘Well, what are you reporting?’ I had so many things to say at the time, and she said ‘no, no, just tell me what crime are you reporting today’ and I was like ‘well, I don’t know what I am reporting’, that is when I realised that the service was not going to be what one would expect.” (Conversations’ Participant 8, Mexico)
Some survivors generously noted this could be the result of the authorities themselves not being trained or skilled in such issues:
“Maybe he’s a good policeman, but he doesn’t know how to talk and differentiate between an interrogation with a criminal and a hearing with a child victim.” (Conversations’ Participant 5, Moldova)
A common theme that arose from young people was that fear – in different manifestations – often- prevented young people from telling anyone about their exploitation. For some, this fear referred to the shame of disclosing to family and acquaintances what they had experienced, while for others, they feared being judged for what their community might perceive as their ‘sexual conduct’. This is especially complicated with some online forms, like when children are manipulated into self-generating sexual content, or if content is passed on without their permission:
“And what are you going to say to the police, that you undressed yourself?” (Conversations’ Participant 2, Moldova)
One of the young men, who identified as gay, feared being stigmatised for his sexual orientation if he disclosed his abuse. This fear of disclosure because of stigma, shame and the perceptions of others aligned with findings in the frontline support worker survey, where by far the most commonly selected factors that workers considered barriers to disclosure were “the stigma and shame that victims often experience (culture of silence)” (58%, n=241) and “fears about how others will respond to disclosure” (51%, n=210).
Limited awareness of support services was quite common across the survivor participants in all countries.
“Only when everything had happened, did I learn that out there is a social worker who was supposed to take care of children and provide protection to them. No one had told me about the existence of this social worker, not even her!” (Conversations’ Participant 8, Albania)
In many cases young people were eventually referred to support services by police, prosecutor’s offices etc. Schools were highlighted in the data as potentially protective environments and a first line for victim identification and referral to supports. However, for young people, schools were frequently criticised for their performance in this area. On the contrary, some young people may have been treated with prejudice and blamed by the teaching staff for the abuse that occurred against them.
However, some participants also acknowledged that perhaps these circumstances arise as teachers are not trained in the knowledge and skills needed to identify and intervene in risky situations.
“To be frank, not even our teachers, or the psychologist at my school, have any idea at all on how we can protect ourselves online, or how they can come to our defence. During open discussion classes, we did nothing but discuss fun stuff…” (Conversations’ Participant 6, Albania)
Conversations’ Participant 1, Colombia, explained that given her experience, she felt that teachers simply had not been trained to identify indicators of abuse in children; and that they had no information about the dangers of sexual violence on social media.
Legal services did appear to be largely available and once engaged, represented a positive experience for most young people.
“The lawyer was like a guarantee certificate for my safety.” (Conversations’ Participant 14, Moldova)
Though in some cases processes were not well explained to them and contact was sporadic. In some cases, young people even dropped their complaints after long periods of no contact.
“I withdrew it because of the answer I received…Let’s say it like this, I did not have any news from the authorities, I never had information about what the progress was, the only information I had was ‘we do not have access, Twitter denied us’ and at that moment I no longer wanted to go through with it.” (Conversations’ Participant 8, Mexico)
While this may not represent a long time in institutional court processes – these are deeply difficult and troubling experiences that can consume survivors while they wait in limbo for action and – as in the case of the young Mexican woman we spoke to, can lead to a denial of a child victim’s right to access justice, legal remedies and support.
Psychological support was generally very much appreciated when available, but was often not consistently available for as long as the young people would have liked:
“It would have helped me to have ‘continuous’ psychological support, to fill ‘the gap’ and pain that the situation had left.” (Conversations’ Participant 4, Peru)
Yet some survivors also reported community stigma associated with seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist, as these services are considered targeted only at those who are mentally ill. Work to dismantle these perceptions is essential as part of reducing barriers to accessing help.
“When I asked my parents to go to the psychologist because I realised that my relationships, especially with my boyfriend, were not good, they just told me that I was crazy, and that it was not necessary.” (Conversations’ Participant 9, Mexico)
A need for extensive opportunities for training and support to frontline support workers was clearly confirmed also by the expert roundtable. Furthermore, the experts noted a need to actually demystify the support survivors need. While there is ground for new learning regarding technology and the different ways it is misused to abuse children, at the end of the day, young people still need to be heard, believed and cared for – basic principles for all child protection work.
Almost all the conversations with young people emphasised the strong need for better prevention activities regarding sexual exploitation and abuse – both in general and when technology is involved. When asked about the general level of awareness about child sexual exploitation and abuse online in the general community, the frontline workers across the six countries rated this as generally “poor” (71%, n=291). Only 10% of frontline workers (n=39) felt awareness was “good” or “excellent”.
Also emphasised was the critical role that schools could play in preventing sexual abuse and exploitation online, and how teachers and parents should not be averse to discussing sex and sexuality with young people. A young survivor from Colombia, for example, reflected on the importance of education and awareness-raising:
“Knowing about cybercrimes – that would have made me stop a bit and I would have realised that what was happening to me was that I was being the victim of a crime. For us as young people it is important to recognise the strategies that these people use to manipulate and deceive and thus achieve to identify and stop them, not knowing how they act gives them an advantage to be able to deceive us.” (Conversations’ Participant 5, Colombia)
Survivors shared how in schools, sexual education is often understood as “avoiding getting pregnant”. Conversely, the young survivors believe that such classes should provide children with advice and guidance on what to do when encountering grooming and other risks of sexual exploitation and abuse online. Information about where to seek help, as well as making space to discuss issues like consent and navigating healthy relationships are essential.
Urgent action is needed from governments, civil society, communities and industry partners to better protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse online.
This report ends with detailed recommendations for actions that are drawn from the data, and in many cases directly from the words of survivors. The recommendations generally fall into two categories; how to improve access and quality of reporting mechanisms, and how to better support children who have experienced sexual exploitation and abuse online.
Read full report here.
WeProtect Global Alliance brings together experts from government, the private sector and civil society to develop policies and solutions to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse online.
The Alliance generates political commitment and practical approaches to make the digital world safe and positive for children, preventing sexual abuse and long-term harm.
ECPAT International is a global network of civil society organisations working towards the vision of ending the sexual exploitation of children. With over 30 years of experience in engaging with and managing multi-stakeholder processes and alliances across national, regional and global levels; ECPAT is considered to be at the helm of all issues and manifestations pertaining to the sexual exploitation of children. With a Secretariat based in Bangkok (Thailand), driving strategic direction, producing key research and working on global advocacy; together with the on-the-ground efforts of 122 members in 104 countries, the network approach bridges local communities, governments and the private sector; offering a global approach combined with customised national actions.