Sexual abuse imagery of girls online at record high following pandemic lockdowns

27 May 2022 Angela Munoz Aroca

New data published by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a partner in the UK Safer Internet Centre, shows girls are at increasing risk online. The Online Safety Bill is a once in a generation chance to offer better protection for children.

  • New IWF data shows 97% of all child sexual abuse material identified in 2021 featured the sexual abuse of girls. Ten years ago, only 65% of the imagery analysts saw was of girls.
  • In 2021 the IWF took action to remove a record-breaking 252,000 URLs which it confirmed contained images or videos of children being raped and/or suffering sexual abuse.
  • Of these, the IWF confirmed 182,281 URLs contained images or videos of “self-generated”* material. This is a 374% increase on pre-pandemic levels when, in 2019, analysts took action to remove 38,424 URLs containing self-generated material.
  • The IWF says the Online Safety Bill, along with efforts to tackle Violence Against Women and Girls, is a once in a generation chance to offer better protection for children online.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has found nearly all (97%) of the imagery of children suffering sexual abuse it dealt with last year included female victims, as lockdown has created a “new normal” for online grooming.

The IWF, the UK non-profit responsible for finding and removing child sexual abuse from the internet, says this is a marked increase on a decade ago when only 65% of the images and videos it took action to remove included girls.

Experts at the IWF have raised fears that the acceleration of people moving their lives online in the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic has put children, particularly girls, at greater risk of exploitation.

In total last year, IWF analysts investigated 361,062 reports, including tip offs from the public, of suspected criminal material. This is more than they dealt with in the entire first 15 years of their existence when, from 1996 to 2011 they assessed 335,558 reports.

In 2021, the IWF took action to remove a record-breaking 252,194 webpages which it confirmed contained sexual abuse images or videos of children, having links to the imagery, or advertising it.  This equates to millions of individual images and videos.

The IWF has released its 2021 Annual Report. As well as highlighting the increasingly gendered nature of the child sexual abuse imagery being uploaded and shared online, it also shows:

  • Sexual abuse imagery of children aged 11-13 is most prevalent, accounting for almost seven in ten instances identified last year.
  • Six in ten reports included the sexual abuse of an 11-13 year old girl who has been groomed, coerced or encouraged into sexual activities by someone who is not in the room with the girl. They’ve accessed the child via a camera-and-internet-enabled device.
  • Whilst just 1% of the sexual abuse imagery shows boys, this accounts for 2,641 instances. In more than half of these cases (53%) the boy was suffering category A. By comparison, 17% of the sexual abuse imagery of girls shows category A activities.
  • Europe remains the largest hoster of child sexual abuse imagery with 72% being traced to a European country in 2021. 17% was traced to North America and 7% traced to Asian countries.

The report shows that, of the 252,000 URLs the IWF took action to remove last year, 242,000 (97%) featured female victims.

The analysis also reveals 4,500 URLs contained abuse imagery featuring both male and female victims, while 1% (2,600) of everything the IWF confirmed as child sexual abuse featured solely male victims.

The IWF works with internet companies, governments, and other non-profit organisations around the world to find and remove this imagery.

As well as this, they provide a suite of technical tools and services. It has assessed and created more than a million hashes (digital fingerprints) which are shared globally with technology companies to prevent the upload, distribution and storage of child sexual abuse images.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said: “It’s concerning to see how not only are the reports of child sexual abuse imagery online greater than what we’ve seen before, there’s been an increasing trend by offenders online sharing sexual material of girls.

“The Online Safety Bill is a golden opportunity to improve online safety for everyone, particularly women and girls, who our data shows are facing a disproportionate amount of harm online.

“We need to ensure that children receive an excellent education to empower them to stay safer online, and that there are first class awareness raising initiatives in place among, in particular, parents and those with a caring responsibility for children.

“When you look at this over the past 10 years it tells a story about the tastes and preferences of the people who are creating the market-place for this material.

“We need to be asking ourselves about how this relates to the violence we see against women and girls in our society, and the experiences that have been shared through Everyone’s Invited.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “The sexual abuse and exploitation of children online is a disgusting crime and I am determined to do all within my power to help stamp it out and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.

“This report from the Internet Watch Foundation will help our law enforcement agencies understand the changing nature of online child abuse as the lines are increasingly blurred between children’s physical and digital lives.

“The government’s Online Safety Bill will ensure that technology companies are held accountable for keeping children safe online and we will impose a powerful range of sanctions if they fail to do so.”

Ms Hargreaves said the coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdowns have created a “new normal” with sexual abusers exploiting people who have shifted their lives online.

She added:  “The pandemic has continued to impact teenagers’ social lives, with many spending more time than ever online.

“Living online has become the new normal. Unfortunately, this means more children are at risk. Sexual abusers will target children – girls in particular – and manipulate them into performing sexual acts on camera.

“These images are then shared across the internet, with the devastating result of revictimising the child every time these images are viewed.  

“Sadly, we are seeing the targeting of girls accelerating. The latest figures are a stark reflection of the society we live in.”

Images and videos of online child sexual abuse can be reported anonymously at

The public is given this advice when making a report:

Do report images and videos of child sexual abuse to the IWF to be removed.

Reports to the IWF are anonymous.

Do provide the exact URL where child sexual abuse images are located.

Don’t report other harmful content – you can find details of other agencies to report to on the IWF’s website.

Do report to the police if you are concerned about a child’s welfare.

Do report only once for each web address – or URL. Repeat reporting of the same URL isn’t needed and wastes analysts’ time.

Repeat reporting of the same URL isn’t needed and wastes analysts’ time.

Do report non-photographic visual depictions of the sexual abuse of children, such as computer-generated images.

Anything of this nature, which is also hosted in the UK, the IWF can get removed.

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