Children as young as three are being groomed online, charities warn

Children as young as three are being groomed online, charities warn

Sexual predators are training children under the age of six to carry out “disturbing” acts of sexual abuse via phone or webcam a charity has warned.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) said it had found more than two thousand remotely recorded child abuse images of three- to six-year-olds online in 2023.

According to the latest warning from communications watchdog Ofcom that almost a quarter of five to seven year olds have their own smartphone.

Responding to the report Security Minister Tom Tugendhat urged tech firms to do more to prevent abuse.

He also called on parents “to talk to your children about their use of social media, because platforms you think are safe may pose risks”.

IWF is a charity that helps detect and remove child sexual abuse imagery online.

New analysis published in its latest annual report revealed it had found 2401 images of children aged three to six in so-called “self-generated” images on the open internet in 2023.

A “self-generated” image is one where a child is persuaded, coerced or tricked by a predator into committing an act via a web camera or handheld device.

Almost one in seven images is category A – the rating given to images that display the most serious abuse. Six out of 10 images show the suggested “sexual posing with nudity”.

Analysts who reviewed several images found many, “taken at home in the child’s bedroom or in the family bathroom when the child is alone or with another child such as a sibling or friend”.

Sometimes children are “not aware” they are being recorded.

IWF analysts are convinced that others directed what happened because three- to six-year-old children are “sexually naïve and usually unaware of the possibility of this type of sexual behavior,” he said.

The report also noted that child abuse material online was more “extreme” with the charity reporting a 22% increase in category A imagery.

Artificial intelligence
Ofcom research suggests a third of parents whose children aged five to seven surf social media are allowed to do so alone.

Ian Critchley, who leads child protection for the Inspector-General’s Council, said protecting young children was not just the responsibility of parents and carers. The “biggest change” will have to come from technology companies and online platforms, he said.

As part of its work implementing the new Online Safety Act, the communications watchdog said it will consult on how automated tools, including AI, can be used to “proactively detect” illegal content – including child sexual abuse material.

But the IWF is calling for swift action and thinks tech firms shouldn’t wait.

“Harm is happening to children now, and our response must be immediate,” said chief executive Susie Hargreaves.

AI is already being used by several large tech firms to help identify content that violates its terms, including child abuse material.

This is primarily used to help identify material that is then reviewed by human moderators.

But experts warn AI alone is not a panacea. Professor Alan Woodward from the University of Surrey told the BBC: “AI may prove useful in helping scale the data being analyzed but at the current state of development it cannot be considered a complete solution.”

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