Three-year-olds being 'manipulated into sexual abuse online'

Children as young as three are being manipulated into "disturbing" acts of sexual abuse, according to a report by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).

Warning: This story contains descriptions of child sexual abuse imagery

Last year was the most extreme year on record for the IWF's abuse hotline, which saw a 22% increase in "category A" imagery.

Category A imagery involves penetrative sexual activity, images involving sexual activity with an animal, or sadism.

For the first time, the charity analysed a whole year's worth of data on abuse of three-to-six year olds and found these young children were being targeted while online on phones and devices within the family home.

"All 'self-generated' child sexual abuse imagery is horrific but seeing so many very young children in these images and videos is particularly distressing," said the report.

The amount of "self-generated" child sexual abuse images jumped by 27% in one year. This is created by the perpetrator as they direct the victim remotely and record it from webcams. It made up the vast majority of abusive images analysed by the IWF.

"The term 'self-generated' does not mean that the child is instigating the creation of this sexual content themselves," said the report's authors.

"They are being groomed, coerced and in some cases blackmailed into engaging in sexual behaviour. They are never to blame for the creation or existence of this imagery."

Most of the imagery showed children in a home setting and most often in a child's bedroom. In the background, analysts saw soft toys, games, books and bedding featuring cartoon characters.

"These are very young children, supposedly in the safety of their own bedrooms, very likely unaware that the activities they are being coerced into doing are being recorded and saved and ultimately shared multiple times on the internet," said the report.

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'Predators are targeting younger and younger victims'

The IWF is one of only a handful of non-government organisations worldwide with the legal powers to proactively search for child sexual abuse online so it can be removed from the internet and passed onto police.

The charity is now calling for children under six to be warned about online dangers.

“The opportunistic criminals who want to manipulate your children into disturbing acts of sexual abuse are not a distant threat,” said Susie Hargreaves, the IWF’s chief executive.

“They are trying to talk to them now on phones and devices you can find in any family home.

“If children under six are being targeted, we need to be having age appropriate conversations now to make sure they know how to spot the dangers.”

"This deeply disturbing report shows that predators are targeting younger and younger victims," said Security Minister Tom Tugendhart.

"My message to parents is to speak to your children about their use of social media, because the platforms you presume safe may pose a risk."

Last week, Ofcom published a report showing more than 40% of parents of five-to-seven year olds say they use social media with their child, while a third admitted their child uses social media independently.

Some 30% of parents of these younger children also said they would allow their child to have a profile on social media before they reached the minimum age required.

"Offenders are gaining access to even younger children, which is simply unimaginable for us all," said Ian Critchley, the NPCC’s child protection lead.

"But this isn’t just the responsibility of parents and carers - the biggest change though we must see is from the tech companies and online platforms.

"Companies are still failing to protect children and continue far too often to put profit before child safety."