Girls are at increased risk of being groomed online during the coronavirus emergency as they spend more time online and out of school, experts warned.
Frontline service providers say they are already seeing teenage girls struggling with their mental health due to the upheaval of the Covid-19 crisis and perpetrators could take advantage of this increased vulnerability.
Charities warn lockdown measures create “a perfect storm” for abusers to “find, trick and coerce” young girls into exposing themselves on livestreaming sites — with the footage later distributed on child sex abuse sites.
Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, which removes child abuse imagery from the internet, told The Independent “within seconds” adult perpetrators posing as fellow teenagers or pretend boyfriends will urge victims to take their clothes off, adding that perpetrators use the footage to blackmail girls in the starkest cases.
Ms Hargreaves, who said men approach children as young as 11 online, noted the trend was already a “national crisis” before the coronavirus outbreak but could be further exacerbated.
She said: “A lot of key workers in supermarkets, the NHS and other jobs have to go to work during the coronavirus crisis. They have no choice. If their children are at home, it is impossible for parents to supervise them. Also, parents working from home have to juggle working and parenting. Internet companies have seen people online more.
“Children are all over the house on different devices. It is very, very difficult for parents and carers to supervise them.
“On the one hand, it is essential children are online as that keeps them connected to friends and family, mentally stimulated and entertained, but at the same time, it makes them more vulnerable. Being locked at home is creating a perfect storm for perpetrators to find, trick and coerce these children.”
Ms Hargreaves, who noted that girls were the victims in 92 per cent of all child abuse sexual content they had removed, said her organisation was working with the police and public agencies during the coronavirus emergency to record trends and potential surges.
Jane Kenyon, founder and chief executive of Girls Out Loud, a charity that works with teenage girls, raised concerns about how the closure of schools — most of which shut on 20 March — would impact teenage girls.
Ms Kenyon told The Independent: “Girls are bored, lonely and confused, often living in homes with compromised parenting. All this means it is more likely they will look for validation anywhere and the internet is probably the only place they can find this in isolation, without friends and school activities. Also when you are bored and lonely you are more vulnerable and probably take more risks.
“As social media becomes their permanent hangout and they become complacent, their version of normal shifts and they overshare, their vulnerabilities show up louder and this allows sex offenders to pick up more in their search criteria.
“We are seeing girls we work with who have mental health issues struggling, with one non-fatal overdose already. But there is also a concern about what we don’t see as the girls are not in school and we are not allowed to continue our one to one work with over 80 per cent of them due to very strict key worker rules put in place by government i.e unless you have a social worker you are not considered vulnerable enough to go into school and meet with any intervention specialists like us. This is heartbreaking for us and them.”
Ms Kenyon said spotting the signs early is “generally the only safeguard” in place but no contact whatsoever makes this impossible. She noted school is a “place of safety” for many of the girls they work with and called for the government to open schools to all the young people “who want and need to” meet key workers and get support.
Jackie Redding, assistant director of operations for young people’s sexual health charity, Brook, said: “Because of the prolonged period at home, abusers have the time to invest in gaining the trust of young people. Naturally, young people may be feeling isolated, lonely and anxious and depending on their home circumstances, they may be worried about their family or feeling unsafe and looking for friendship online.”
Earlier this month, the National Crime Agency warned social distancing measures brought in to curb the spread of coronavirus could cause a substantial surge in online sex offenses.
The agency said the UK is home to at least 300,000 paedophiles who constitute a risk to children on the internet or in real life. The figure, which predates Covid-19, was published to draw attention to a potential “spike in online child sex offending during the coronavirus crisis”.
“They face an increased threat from offenders who are also online in greater numbers,” a spokesperson said. “The NCA also knows from online chat that offenders are discussing opportunities to abuse children during the Covid-19 crisis.”
Sarah Green, director of End Violence Against Women, said: “Any sense of lawlessness and police and other statutory services being diverted elsewhere, can drive perpetrators of sexual violence and exploitation to be more confident to offend, both in families and in the broader community.
“There is a serious risk of increased child sexual abuse online, child sexual exploitation of young people who are not in school and unsupervised, and sexual violence against girls by their peers on and offline, during this crisis.”
Experts say the grooming process can take place far more rapidly online than in person and self-generated content has risen exponentially each year since 2014.
In January, it emerged that one third of child sex abuse images are originally posted online by children themselves amid warnings of a rising phenomenon of minors sharing graphic footage for “likes”.
The Internet Watch Foundation took action on more than 37,000 reports that contained self-generated images and videos from the internet that depicted criminal imagery of under 18s between January and November 2019. It previously warned 80 per cent of the sexual selfies it found in its hunt for images of child sexual abuse were of girls aged between 11 and 13.
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