Call over online child exploitation
Children as young as seven are posting sexual images of themselves on the internet which are falling into the hands of sex offenders, a new report has warned.
The "horrifying" study findings show that children are allowing strangers to view them in sexual poses in their bedrooms via webcams, egged on by adults viewing the pornographic material on websites.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) study found nearly 4,000 photos or videos were posted over three months last autumn.
Of these 17.5% (667) featured children aged 15 and younger while 286 (7.5%) depicted children believed to be 10 years old or younger.
This is a dramatic rise in young children as a similar study in 2012 found no footage or images of children under 13 years old.
The overwhelming majority (93%) of children under 15 years old featured in the images were girls.
One video described in the report shows a seven-year-old girl heavily made up and dressed in underwear lying on her bed and exposing herself to a webcam.
She tells the camera: "This is just for boys, I'm not going to do all that stuff you requested but I will show you it." She then exposes herself.
Leaning close to the camera she whispers: "Mum might see it and get worried and you know, like, delete my account."
In another video a 12-year-old girl uses the webcam to get close-up footage of her urinating.
She then says: "So, now we're officially boyfriend and girlfriend. Well, internet boyfriend and girlfriend as we may never actually get to kiss."
Another video shows a 10-year-old girl crying and "extremely distressed" and repeatedly shaking her head before eventually stripping naked for the camera.
The report states: "Comments made in relation to this video on the site on which it had been posted say this video is an example of a 'sextortion' video, whereby a child is blackmailed on the basis of sexual content they have shared with the blackmailer.
"If the child refuses to create more, the blackmailer will distribute the original content publicly."
The IWF stressed that the young children featured may have thought they were broadcasting the explicit images to one person, but this was recorded and posted on the internet by the abuser at the other end of the webcam.
Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said: "This study shows a behaviour among young people which is different to what we observed previously.
"Far removed from 'selfies', taken and shared between young people in relationships, this shows children and young adults displaying sexual behaviour via web cam to one or many individuals.
"We've observed children doing this often from a bedroom or bathroom. Some children and young people appear to actively engage with the individual or individuals at the other end of the webcam. Others we noted were upset and distressed at what they were being asked to do.
"It's important to note these images are global - we know some were recorded in the UK, but most were recorded overseas. Where we identified serious safeguarding issues, we alerted authorities.
"We all need to ensure parents have what they need to talk to their children about behaviour online, and that children and young people themselves understand the risks involved in getting naked online."
Claire Lilley, head of child online safety at the NSPCC, said: "The truly worrying problem is the number of very young children who are being coerced into providing material which is almost certainly finishing-up in the hands of sex offenders.
"Many of them are primary school age and are being forced to commit acts which are at the most serious end of sexual abuse. It's apparent some are being 'directed' to do things they find extremely distressing by strangers sitting at the other end of a webcam who will then no doubt pass on the material.
"This is a horrifying situation for the young victims who will be scared and bewildered by what is happening. To protect them there must be more investment in crime enforcement agencies so they have the manpower and latest technology to prevent this hideous abuse.
"Some older children may be willingly taking part in making sexually explicit videos because it might seem edgy or exciting. But they should be aware they are also likely to have no control over the final destination of such images. They could be shared countless times and remain in existence for many years to come, with consequences they will live to deeply regret."
Jacqueline Beauchere, chief online safety officer at Microsoft, which sponsored the study, said: "The data are disturbing and suggest increased attention needs to be brought to this issue.
"For its part, Microsoft will seek to create and deploy appropriate technology, raise awareness and help to educate the public, and continue to partner with organisations like the IWF to ensure strategies and proposed solutions are research-based."
Any young person concerned about their naked images and videos online can contact ChildLine on 0800 1111.
The report's lead author Sarah Smith said: "This is one of the most shocking studies I've been involved in and we were very surprised at what we were seeing, because of the age of the children.
"I couldn't say the images are more extreme. But for this user-produced content, it was shocking to see this was starting to filter down to younger age groups."
She said the study was not able to establish exactly what motivated young children to take part in this sexual behaviour.
In some instances they may have been abused and learnt the behaviour, they may be trying to score highly on the popularity rating on social media websites, or they may be bullied and blackmailed into taking part.
But once the images had been produced they were quickly circulated across up to 230 different domains, researchers found.
Ms Smith added: "When you have coercion of a child, particularly within these younger age ranges, to produce or share sexual content of this nature, this is a form of child sexual abuse."
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "Online child sexual exploitation is an appalling crime that this Government is committed to stamping out.
"We have worked with industry and partners to block links appearing in online searches that may lead to images of child sexual abuse.
"The Internet Watch Foundation is also now able to both proactively search and reactively respond to this type of material - including images which are self-generated - so they can be blocked or removed from the internet.
"We have also introduced a single, secure database of indecent images of children. This will help law enforcement agencies search seized devices, recognise indecent images and identify victims."