Online child sexual abuse has increased by more than 75 percent during the pandemic

For perpetrators, the COVID-19 pandemic is like a perfect storm. Lockdowns have had a major impact on both children and adults as they have spent more time online, and the result has been a dramatic increase of online child sexual abuse crime. With both groups addicted to their devices, children are left unsupervised online and more susceptible to grooming.

By John Pizzuro, NJ ICAC Commander, New Jersey State Police, USA

In the US, each state is different, but online complaints have gone up by between 75–200 percent compared to before the pandemic. These are both complaints of child sexual abuse material and grooming. Self-produced videos have increased dramatically, and the number of videos with younger children, between the ages of 6–9 years old, has gone up. In my opinion this is a result of more and younger children getting their own mobile phones, and spending more unsupervised time online.

I see a direct correlation between the increase in online child sexual abuse crime and the increase in screen time during the pandemic as a result of lockdowns and social restrictions. The psychological impact of isolation, less structured communities, and the addiction that both adults and children have to their devices, adds fuel to the situation.

For perpetrators, the COVID-19 pandemic is like a perfect storm

Increase in cybertips

This increase is also reflected in the volumes of cybertips from NCMEC that have been referred to law enforcement. In New Jersey, we have received close to 7,000 cybertips during 2020 compared to 4,500 in 2019.

There are several different reasons for this increase. One is that NCMEC processes were affected when their personnel had to work from home. That meant that tips were coming through to us that normally would have been filtered out by NCMEC, increasing our workload. In addition, when people spent more time online, they had more opportunities to discover and report child sexual abuse material, and a number of child sexual abuse files also went viral at the beginning of the pandemic.

However, I would say most of the increase is in actual increased perpetrator activity. My estimation is that 50 percent of the cybertips we received relate to increased perpetrator activity, 25 percent is due to the effect on NCMEC’s processes, and another 25 percent is viral or age difficult material.

Reports of offline crimes

At the same time, we’ve seen a decrease in reports concerning offline child sexual abuse. My guess is that there are probably more actual instances of offline child sexual abuse, especially where children have been locked down with the person who is abusing them, but we have not been able to capture this yet. Most reports concerning hands-on abuse come from schoolteachers and other mandatory reporters, and during lockdown and school closures no one is seeing the damage done to these children.

Law enforcement capacity

The pandemic has mainly affected us, law enforcement, by the sheer increase in volumes of child sexual abuse material and cases – we are inundated.

From a mental health point of view that is taking a toll on the police officers working in this field. This also means that we cannot act on other sources of information. We are not dealing with peer-to-peer downloads, and whereas last year we did two or three chat operations, we have not done any of those this year.

We have also been affected by courts being closed during periods of the pandemic. Other COVID safety precautions meant that for example in April and May of 2020 we only acted on urgent search warrants. Some agencies have continued to only act on cases where there is reason to believe that a child is in immediate danger.

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement around the country had to shift priorities during the riots in the US. Personnel had to be reassigned for two to three weeks, which of course caused backlogs.