The results show an impact on online CSA crime and the amount of CSAM available online
The aim of the NetClean reports is to promote greater awareness of and more insight into child sexual abuse crime; to contribute to effective ways of stopping the dissemination of child sexual abuse material; and, ultimately, to stop the sexual abuse of children.
Although it is too early to draw major conclusions from the data collected in 2020, and presented in the NetClean Report – COVID-19 Impact 2020 we can already see worrying trends. Indications from online monitoring and reports to hotlines suggest strongly that both online and offline CSA crime has increased, and with normal safeguards missing (e.g. schools) there will be a delay in reporting to the police. In addition, as the fallout of the pandemic has affected law enforcement’s ability to investigate and process cases, we are looking at further challenges to fighting these crimes against children.
In this comment on the findings in the law enforcement survey, Anna Borgström, CEO of NetClean, looks at the results of the survey and the impact that COVID-19 has had on CSA crime.
By Anna Borgström, CEO, NetClean
The results from the law enforcement survey make it clear that it is still too early to draw major conclusions about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected child sexual abuse (CSA) crime.
However, much of the data and responses that we got from the surveyed police officers, show worrying tendencies. The results indicate a considerable impact on online CSA crime and the amount of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) available online.
An underreported crime
The amount of CSAM material and the pace of which it is shared online was already impossible to get an overview of before the pandemic started. Child sexual abuse is a crime, online and offline, where a full picture is impossible to gather because we know that most children do not report if they have been sexually abused.
With all the changes and upheavals that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not surprising that children have suffered alongside everyone else.
This is especially true when you consider that throughout many parts of the world people have spent much more time online. People have also been confined to their homes, and when restrictions have impacted on the work of law enforcement and their capacity to conduct investigations and prosecute criminals, children have become more vulnerable.
Effects on judicial systems
The results of the survey show that judicial systems have been affected, as many warrants have not been processed, and closed courts or reduced court hours have slowed down work. Police officers’ own workload have increased, while at the same time having to deal with the limitations of working remotely, e.g. not being able to review evidence (CSAM) from the home, conduct interviews etc. It is noticeable however that the expert analysis infers that in countries where CSA crimes have been highly prioritised, the shortcomings listed above have largely been negated.
It is, as mentioned, still too early to get a clear picture of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on CSA crime, however the surveyed police officers did agree that the volumes of CSAM is increasing, and that especially online CSA crime is increasing. They, and the experts who we asked to comment on our research, are however somewhat divided on whether this crime as a whole is increasing due to COVID-19 restrictions, or whether statistics and findings are just following the growth rate that we see year on year
“Whether the increase in material online is a result of the
COVID-19 pandemic or not, it is important that we work to stop the sexual abuse of children and the revictimisation that happens every time an image is shared.”
Concerning online crime, research shows that children who are sexually abused suffer more if they know that their abuse has been documented, and the trauma is further accelerated if they know that the material has been shared online. Therefore, whether the increase in material online is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic or not, it is important that we work to stop the sexual abuse of children and the revictimisation that happens every time an image is shared.
Difference in reported effects
What we can also see in the report is that there is a considerable difference between how police officers from the US, the UK and the rest of Europe describe that the pandemic has affected CSA crime and law enforcement capacity to investigate these crimes, in comparison with how Swedish police officers responded. Even though there are a number of Swedish police officers who report that they have seen effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, they report a much smaller change than the other respondents.
An indication from this result, is that school closures and lockdowns especially have increased the risk to children significantly. This has come from a lack of access to mandatory reporters, and from children spending much more time at home and online.
In Sweden schools were not closed and lockdowns were never implemented. Therefore the amount of time children spent online during school hours did not increase. And, with many parents working from home, Swedish children were perhaps, if anything, more monitored than before by their parents when spending time online after school. With the schools remaining open children also had access to mandatory reporters and other “safe” adults.
Without casting any aspersions on the restrictions that have been implemented across the world, it can be stated that from the perspective of the child, and on this particular issue, school closures and lockdowns contributed to the increased risk to children.