300 million children targeted by online sexual predators

300 million children targeted by online sexual predators

Global Study Reveals Over 300 Million Children Victimized by Online Sexual Exploitation Annually


A groundbreaking study from the University of Edinburgh has revealed that more than 300 million children worldwide fall victim to online sexual exploitation and abuse each year. This marks the first global estimate of the crisis, with researchers finding that 12.6% of the world’s children have experienced non-consensual communication, sharing, and exposure to sexual images and videos in the past year. This translates to approximately 302 million young people.

Additionally, the study estimates that 12.5% of children globally—about 300 million—have been subjected to online solicitation over the past year. This includes unwanted sexual talk, non-consensual sexting, unwanted sexual questions, and requests for sexual acts from both adults and other youths.

Offenses also encompass "sextortion," where predators blackmail victims by threatening to release private images unless they are paid, and the abuse of AI deepfake technology.

While the issue is pervasive globally, the research highlights the United States as a particularly high-risk area. The Childlight initiative at the University of Edinburgh, which aims to understand the prevalence of child abuse, has introduced a new global index called "Into The Light." This index found that one in nine men in the US (nearly 14 million) have admitted to online offending against children at some point. In comparison, 7% of British men (1.8 million) and 7.5% of Australian men have admitted to similar offenses.

The study also uncovered that many men admitted they would seek to commit physical sexual offenses against children if they believed they could do so without being caught.

Paul Stanfield, chief executive of Childlight, described the situation as "staggering." He stated, "In the UK alone, the number of male offenders could form a line stretching from Glasgow to London or fill Wembley Stadium 20 times over. Child abuse material is so prevalent that files are reported to watchdog and policing organizations once every second. This is a global health pandemic that has remained hidden for far too long. It occurs in every country, it’s growing exponentially, and it requires a global response. We need to act urgently and treat it as a public health issue that can be prevented. Children can’t wait."

Debi Fry, a professor of international child protection at the university, emphasized that the issue affects children "in every classroom, in every school, in every country." She added, "These aren’t harmless images; they are deeply damaging. The abuse continues with every view and the failure to take down this abusive content."

Stephen Kavanagh, executive director of Interpol, highlighted the challenges faced by traditional law enforcement approaches in combating online exploitation and abuse. "We must do much more together at a global level, including specialist investigator training, better data sharing, and equipment to effectively fight this pandemic and the harm it inflicts on millions of young lives around the world," he said.

Survivors of online child sexual abuse have also shared their experiences. Frida, whose name has been changed, was targeted through social media from the age of 13 to 18 by a man in his 30s. She described the experience as "deeply isolating" and emphasized the need for greater understanding and regulation. "Childlight’s figures show that not only am I not alone in my experiences, but that more and more children are experiencing horrific abuse and exploitation online each day. In order to understand and prevent harm, we need ambitious regulation to hold these platforms to account and to equip regulators to work with the millions affected by this harm year on year."

Grace Tame, another survivor and leader of the Grace Tame Foundation, stressed the worsening nature of the crisis due to advancing technologies. "Child sexual abuse is a global public health crisis that is steadily worsening thanks to advancing technologies which enable instantaneous production and limitless distribution of child exploitation material, as well as unregulated access to children online. A centralised global research database is essential to safeguarding children. Childlight will restrict offenders' capabilities by restoring power to the rest of the community," she said.

Scottish children and young people minister Natalie Don affirmed the government's commitment to tackling these issues. "Keeping children and young people safe from sexual abuse and exploitation is of the utmost importance to the Scottish Government, and we are working closely with key partners to improve our knowledge of and response to these deeply concerning issues. These are global problems which require global solutions, and I welcome the much-needed work of Childlight to harness worldwide data to help develop tangible action to protect children," she said.

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