Pandemic causing exponential rise in online exploitation of children

Little dependent gamer kid playing on laptop indoors(Getty Images/iStockphoto/sakkmesterke)

At first glance, Shelley Allwang’s cubicle looks just like any other office space.

But alongside a pinboard full of tchotchkes and a photo of her dog, sits a story that reminds Allwang of the importance of her job, now more than ever.

“The Boy and The Starfish” is about a boy tossing beached starfish back into the ocean, saving just one at a time.

Allwang doesn’t work with starfish. But as a program manager at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), her day-to-day job involves helping children who are abused online.

The story is a reminder to Allwang of perseverance in the face of difficult odds; there will always be more starfish to pick up, like there will always be more children who need help. The story has taken on added significance in recent weeks, as Allwang has watched the number of reports of children being abused online soar four-fold.

In April of 2019, the NCMEC received roughly 1 million reports. Last month, it saw more than 4.1 million come in via its CyberTipline, according to data provided to CNN.

“The volume is overwhelming and it can be very daunting. It can feel like a constant pressure and that it’s never going to end,” Allwang told CNN in a phone interview. “But every single time we send out a report, every single time there’s a child rescued, we’re making a difference for that child.”

Officials at the center attribute the exponential increase in reports, which was seen in March as well, to a confluence of circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The pandemic is having an effect,” John Shehan, vice president of NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division, told CNN. “There are some very bad actors out there who are preying on this opportunity of more kids at home and online with parents who are having to juggle homeschooling and work.”

An increasingly tech-savvy population of minors, combined with millions of students engaged in remote learning and more adults spending time online than ever before has created more opportunities for children to be exploited, Shehan said.

He said being cooped up during stay-at-home orders has also added to the increase in reports.

“Kids can’t go out and play with friends. They are online more and more.”

The horrors children face online

The Deep Web, as its name suggests, is the freewheeling part of the internet that has seen increased activity from bad actors since the pandemic struck. That’s where people are “seizing this opportunity,” Shehan said.

Tor is perhaps the darkest corner of the Dark Web where a collection of secret websites require special software to access them. Tor says it’s a way to “use the internet with as much privacy as possible, and the idea was to route traffic through multiple servers and encrypt it each step of the way,” according to its website.

“They are talking about these stay-at-home orders and their desire to use this opportunity to entice children to produce sexually explicit content,” Shehan said.

This sort of content has spilled over into the mainstream web. NCMEC works with more than 1,400 companies to help them report instances of child pornography to NCMEC’s CyberTipline.

Facebook, Snapchat and Imgur were among the 15 companies with the most online child abuse reports sent to NCMEC in 2019, according to data on NCMEC’s website.

Facebook had 15,884,511 reports, Snapchat had 82,030, and Imgur had 73,929, according to publicly available data on NCMEC’s website.

The companies told CNN they all employ technology to help identify abusive content and bad actors on their platforms.

“The size and expertise of our team, together with our sophisticated technology, have made us industry leaders in detecting, removing and reporting these images, and stopping people from sharing them,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email statement to CNN.

Imgur, which says it reaches more than 300 million people per month, has not seen an increase in child sexual abuse material in 2020, Sarah Schaaf, Imgur co-founder and vice president of community, told CNN over email.

All content uploaded to Imgur is run through databases maintained by Thorn, a non-profit organization that uses technology to find child sexual abusers.

“Imgur has a zero-tolerance policy for illegal content and activity on our platform, and our reporting represents our diligent, proactive approach to identifying, eradicating and preventing child sexual abuse material,” Schaaf said. “Any Imgur upload found to be matching a known hash is immediately deleted from our servers and reported to NCMEC for further investigation.”

Snapchat also uses tools to allow people to report abusive content that violates its terms of service, a spokesperson for the company said in an email to CNN.

All reports of child exploitation are reviewed by its Trust and Safety team, and evidence of this activity results in account termination and reporting to NCMEC, the company said.

New users are required to provide their date of birth when they register and if the account owner is under the age of 13, the company will terminate the user’s account immediately, Snapchat said.

NCMEC itself uses software like Palantir to help obtain data hidden in pieces of content and to determine whether this is a new video or image, Allwang said. Palantir engineer Angela Muller has worked closely with NCMEC to develop this software over the past decade. One unique things about the software is its ability to crawl through child abuse videos and pull out images that can identify children and perpetrators, she said.

“That enables NCMEC analysts to do the things that people are great at,” Muller said in a phone interview.

One of the other reasons for the rise in reports last month to the CyberTipline was a handful of child abuse videos that went viral, Shehan said.

Scores of people were reportedly resharing these child abuse videos and photos in hopes of bringing the perpetrator to justice, he said. The reality is, resharing adds to the abuse and is a federal crime.

“You have people sharing this material out of outrage,” Shehan said. “What they don’t realize is, they are breaking the law. They are disseminating illegal material.”

How parents can protect children

Experts say there are two important things parents can do to protect their children from the dangers of online: Pay attention to their internet habits, and teach them how to surf the web carefully.

“As parents, we have to constantly be vigilant,” said Bruce Friend, the chief operating officer of Aurora Institute, formerly known as the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

“If you notice any warning signs, where they are spending more time online or on their phone, especially at night, there are calls coming in that seem to be out of the ordinary, go look at the history, see what’s going on.”

Parents should keep their child’s computer or tablet in a common area when they do their online work and for older students, keep a close eye on family credit cards for any unusual charges, according to Friend.

With many students now doing remote learning from home, Friend said it’s also important for educators to help protect children from online abuse.

Teachers should keep the scope of assignments narrow and make sure the website they are instructing students to visit are trusted.

“Even the most benign of words, if you stick it into Google, it could produce some rather interesting search results,” Friend said.

At Horry County Schools in South Carolina, students are required to take a digital citizenship course that covers online safety, Meaghan Quillen, who runs the district’s virtual school program, said. Parents also have access to this course on an optional basis.

“We encourage parents of the young ones to have full access to the student’s online credentials,” Quillen told CNN over the phone. “We tell students to never share any images of themselves or a classmate with anybody online.”

Quillen encourages parents and educators to use the child-friendly search engine while providing educators a list of safe and verified websites that students can use for assignments.

The psychological impact

Despite all the precautions and tips families can adopt, children will continue to fall prey to nefarious actors online.

One of the most important things parents can do if their child has been abused online ⁠– aside from contacting law enforcement ⁠– is to seek out medical attention, said Dr. Jordan Greenbaum, the medical director for the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

The psychological effects on online abuse can last a lifetime.

“People tend to downplay the mental health repercussions of sexual abuse, especially online abuse,” Greenbaum told CNN in a phone interview.

“Research is showing, and there’s just a little research so far, that the online component of sexual abuse can be particularly distressing…It really takes a toll, and parents and the public may not recognize that in younger kids.”

Anyone worried about the possibility of abuse or neglect can contact the national child abuse hotline: 1-800-422-4453 or visit Crisis counselors answer calls 24/7 and provide crisis intervention, information, and referrals. Any online child abuse should be reported to the CyberTipline.

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