Nearly half of 18-20-year-olds in the Middle East have suffered online abuse and exploitation, a major survey found, with many taken advantage of after sending compromising images across the web.
Child-on-child sexual abuse and self-generated indecent images were among a growing trend of online exploitation found in a report by the WeProtect Global Alliance, an organisation comprising more than 200 governments, private sector companies and civil society groups.
A survey by Economist Impact asked more than 5,000 people aged 18-20 across 54 countries about their experiences online as children.
It found 44 per cent of respondents in the Middle East and North Africa region experienced online sexual harm in childhood.
The figure was 71 per cent in North America and 65 per cent in Western Europe.
A total of 34 per cent said they had been asked to do something sexually explicit online that they were uncomfortable with during their childhood, while 54 per cent had experienced at least one instance of online sexual harm.
“This kind of abuse can take many forms, from grooming to sharing videos of abuse or live streaming,” said Iain Drennan, executive director of WeProtect Global Alliance.
“The report provides a detailed threat assessment from an unprecedented 18 months during the pandemic.
“The internet and social media are often a double-edged sword for children, providing important places for learning and but it's also used to facilitate their sexual abuse.
“It is a crime that impacts children in real life with deep, long-lasting consequences.”
Online predators lurk in the dark web
A case study in the report revealed a real-life story of a 10-year-old girl, Olivia, who was groomed online.
She was approached via a gaming app initially before being encouraged to engage in a more private online chatroom.
The main offender shared Olivia’s details with other abusers who began to contact her directly, sending links to explicit videos to normalise their sexual behaviour.
Men from several different countries were communicating via the dark web, sending her hundreds of emails.
The abuse was eventually discovered by Olivia's father when her mobile phone was left unlocked.
“This story is not one in isolation,” said Mr Drennan.
“Our research over the last nine months has shown a sustained threat of sexual abuse online and it is increasing at an unprecedented rate.
“The past two years have seen highest-ever report rates for online sexual abuse, with an increase in sharing images, grooming and live streaming for payment.
“Covid-19 and the rise of self-generated material that is exploited for a sexual purpose or shared without their consent are major contributing factors to this rise.”
Rates of abuse may be even higher than current data suggest, as figures are not globally representative and skewed towards counties where detection and reporting are higher such as in the US and UK.
Experts have said this kind of abuse is generally an underreported crime.
In May 2021, Europol took down a child sexual abuse site on the dark web with more than 400,000 registered users.
An avalanche of fresh reports revealed a shifting online landscape during the pandemic, with the Internet Watch Foundation reporting a 77 per cent increase in “self-generated” sexual material from 2019-2020.
In the US, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) said it now processes more than 60,000 reports of online child sexual abuse every day.
“After I saw my first image of child exploitation, it took me a lot of education and learning to understand the full extent of this crime,” said Lt Col Dana Humaid, director general of the International Affairs Bureau at the UAE Ministry of Interior.
“Unfortunately, ignorance still exists, and a lack of understanding that while these crimes involve no physical contact between the victim and offender, the damage is still grave.”
The WeProtect Global Alliance was hosted in Abu Dhabi in 2015 to launch a new national response to child exploitation online.
Since then, child protection officers have lobbied on a ministerial, practical and technical level among countries in Mena and Asia to find a comprehensive solution to online child exploitation.
Tech firms must do more to stem tide of abuse
Key report recommendations are greater regulation, tech companies delivering more transparency in online safety tools and greater investment in law enforcement.
“This region can do more to tackle this complex global issue,” said Lt Col Humaid.
“There is huge potential for law enforcement to invest in artificial intelligence, new language processors and image recognition to flag abusive behaviour.
“This powerful technology can be used to increase prosecution rates by automatically detecting age and nudity, and using voice recognition to identify victims and perpetrators.
“These AI tools need to be adopted by more countries.
“Traditional methods are not enough — they are too slow and allow a backlog in law enforcement agencies who take too long to identify victims.”
While tech companies are well-equipped to remove sexual abuse images quickly, with 87 per cent using “hash-matching” algorithms to detect posts, the assessment found they lagged behind in action against online grooming in gaming chatrooms.
Only 37 per cent of tech firms said they used tools to detect the practise, which is often a portal to wider abuse of minors.
Former British police sergeant Henry Platten has established a free, safe social media platform for children to use in the UAE.
GoBubble School has more than 130 registered schools in the UAE and provides a secure, transparent social media platform for children where content is vetted.
“When I was in the police in the UK as a trainee detective and sergeant, social media had an increasing involvement in domestic violence and child exploitation,” said Mr Platten.
“There is still a high number of young children under the age of 13 who are using these platforms before they are old enough to do so.
“The problem of illegal and harmful activity, which is a very real and significant problem, is that it is the forerunner to grooming.”
What is 'capping'?
“Capping” was a particular area of concern raised by the report.
It involves grooming and coercing children into performing sexual acts on camera. It has been described by police as a “problematic trend” fuelling the proliferation of the sexual abuse of children.
Self-generated sexual material has become more common during the pandemic, posing particular challenges for police and policymakers.
Cases include age-appropriate sexual exploration between consenting teenagers as well as grooming-coercion and non-consensual sharing of images.
Evidence of monetisation is also increasing, with increased use of subscriber online platforms.
Mr Platten said the role of parents was crucial and he encouraged them to be heavily invested in the technology children use.
“Entry-level games like Roblox and Minecraft have security features, and parents should know how they work,” he said.
“Technology can solve this problem and it is doing so.
“In the past, firms have shied away from addressing these issues, leaving it up to users to manage their own safety — that has created a void now filled by safety tech and content moderation.
“The UAE is making great strides in this area and it is ahead of many other countries with a high level of thinking.
“Adoption of technologies is happening, but more can be done.”