Grooming, sexual extortion and trafficking – Children of all ages are coerced and threatened

To further contextualise the issue of self-produced material we asked additional questions about the material generated as a result of grooming, sexual extortion and trafficking.

Grooming and sexual extortion – children in all age-brackets

In the survey we asked police officers to state the ages of the children that they see in images that have been produced as a result of grooming and sexual extortion.

The results show that children of all ages are prevalent in investigations; both in images produced as a result of grooming and through sexual extortion. The range of the ages runs from children that are younger than five years old up to eighteen. When the surveyed police officers were asked to point to the most common age, all age brackets were included in the answers. However the more detailed questions show that some age brackets feature more heavily than others.

Most common: 8-16 years

In cases concerning grooming most children fall into the bracket of eight to sixteen years of age, with the majority being between the ages of eleven to thirteen years old. In cases concerning sexual extortion, ages are slightly higher with most children being between the ages of eleven to sixteen years old.

Younger children can also feature

According to the police officers, younger children also feature in the investigations. Roughly 16 percent report that children younger than five years old have featured in grooming investigations, and close to a third report that they have seen children between the ages of five to seven years old.

Seven percent of police officers report that they have seen images of children younger than five years old in cases pertaining to sexual extortion, and one in ten report that they have seen children between the ages of five to seven years old.

Information about age brackets pertaining to self-produced material:

This table shows the extent to which the respondents have seen the respective age categories
in their investigations, and which age category is most prevalent. The respondents were able to
tick several answers.

Grooming and sexual extortion – No major change

Almost a third of the surveyed police officers report that they have not seen a marked difference in grooming and sexual extortion cases over the past three years.

The quarter who have seen a difference report that the number of cases concerning sexual extortion is increasing; that they see more instances of grooming that progress to sexual extortion; that there has been an increase in the use of apps for messaging in these types of cases; and that the children they see in their investigations are becoming younger.

“Sexual extortion cases are now 20-30% of our squads case load and has increased over the last five years. […]”

“It tends to start out as grooming, but gets nasty when the child tries to stop the communication. This is where the extortion starts.”

“Most of the grooming and extortion is now coming from social media apps; unlike a few years ago where most of it occurred by someone that had access to the child”

“Younger (prepubescent) children are being extorted”

Whether grooming or sexual extortion cases have changed in the past three years:

Sexual extortion – Threats to obtain more images

In sexual extortion cases it is almost always the case that children are forced to send more undressed images or films to the offender. Some of the surveyed police officers report that the children have been extorted for money. Some also report that children can be extorted into live-streamed abuse or be made to meet the offender in person to suffer physical sexual abuse.

Threats that the images will be shared

The main threat made towards children is that undressed images of the child will be circulated either online or to people the child knows. Just under a third of the police officers also report that it is common to see threats of physical harm against the child’s family. Other threats mentioned are: threats of violence towards the children themselves; threats to divulge information that the child has given in confidence; and threats that the offender will tell the police about the child.

What the children are extorted for:

Types of threats in cases of sexual extortion:

The most common type of threat in cases of sexual extortion:

No clear connection to trafficking

More than 80 percent of the surveyed police officers report that they do not see a connection between child sexual abuse images and trafficking in their investigations.

“I haven’t had a case yet where the two could be proven that they were connected.”

“Haven’t had any cases that have this connection this year.”

Live-streaming or “marketing”

The police officers who report that they have seen a connection mainly point to cases of live-streaming where offenders pay for streamed material featuring children; most commonly in Asia. Some point to images that have been produced to “market” children who are sold for sexual abuse purposes, or that the images are a result of documenting physical abuse, and that the images themselves were therefore a bi-product of the abuse.

“Live-streaming is becoming a big problem. Children in Thailand or the Philippines and parts of Eastern Europe and Africa are being trafficked for child sexual abuse material.”

“Images and videos are taken to advertise the child. The material is then shared on a closed group setting, dark web or if the child is older, on Craigslist.”

“In the images that I have seen of trafficking it is clear that the child has been bought for sex and the images that are produced are for “capturing the moment”, rather than the child being bought specifically for taking images of them to share.”

The main aim is to make money

The surveyed police officers who do not see a connection between child sexual abuse material and trafficking express that view because trafficking is closely connected to organised crime and money. According to them images are not produced as an end in themselves, but rather constitute a risk for the offender.

“The merging of commercial sex trafficking with child abuse images is not correct. Can the production of child abuse material result in commercial sex trafficking of children? Yes, but the vast majority of commercial sex trafficking is done for money not the production of child abuse material.”

“I have never seen a link. I am surprised as I would have thought there would be adverts. However, in the cases of abusers of trafficking being arrested, NO images have ever been found on their devices. This is more organised crime fuelled by money so they know that taking images is highly risky which differs to abusers who do this for sexual thrills.”

Most common in Asia, Europe and North America

The surveyed police officers report that the connection that exists between trafficking and child sexual abuse material is not dependent on where it happens in the world. This connection is strongest in Asia, Europe and North America. In the NetClean Report 2016, we asked where the children in the sexual abuse material came from and the answer was that the images derived mainly from North America, Europe and Asia. According to the 2016 research it was less common to see children from Asia. However this year’s research showed that child sexual abuse material linked to trafficking was seen to be just as common in all three continents.

Police officers’ insight into whether there is a connection between the production of child sexual abuse material and trafficking:

Police officers’ insight into where in the world there is a connection between child sexual abuse material and trafficking:

Comment on insight 1 and 2:

“There has been a significant increase
in self-produced material”

John Shehan
Vice President of the Exploited Children Division (ECD) at the
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC)

Read comment here

There has been a significant increase in self-produced material

This NetClean Report data about self-produced material matches the data patterns that we see at NCMEC. We have seen a significant rise in this type of material over the past ten years. It is, however, important to highlight that the majority of child sexual abuse material is still produced by people in close proximity to children, e.g. a parent, grandparent, more distant relative, coach or similar.

Increase in grooming and sexual extortion

When looking at grooming and extortion, our data points to a greater increase in grooming and sexual extortion than the NetClean Report does. We have been tracking child grooming and sexual extortion crimes since 2013 and have seen an increase in cases (2015-2016) of 150 percent; a number that is continuing to rise.

There are also a large number of hidden cases. Behind every discovered case there are often tens or hundreds of other victims that the offender has groomed and extorted. The majority of those victims do not come forward and continue to comply with the offender because of threats of material being posted on social media and sent to the victim’s parents.
Similar to the NetClean Report, our data suggests that children are extorted primarily for more images. We have also seen a development in how offenders operate. They are now moving children increasingly quickly off gaming platforms, onto social media and then onto video platforms that are not as closely monitored. Likewise, the conversation is now moving quicker from innocent messages to explicit demands and threats. With the increased use of the video format the demands have become increasingly graphic. This is because the offender is able to ask for material with motion and sound, rather than just an image.

The children range from 8 to 17 in age

Examining the extortion material in our database, we see that the age range of the children is between 8 and 17 years old, with an average age of 15 years. 78 percent of the children are girls. We have not come across children younger than 6 or 7 years old, and I would say that when that happens, those cases are anomalies, and the result of older siblings having been groomed or extorted into involving them.

Trafficking is a complicated issue

A less clear-cut area concerns images connected to trafficked children. It can often be difficult to determine how old these children are, because of the make-up and attire that they are made to wear. These images are often not as sexually explicit or undressed as other types of child sexual abuse material. We are currently working with a number of large technology companies to help them develop indicators for the trafficking of children.

An important component in our work to stop the dissemination of child sexual abuse material is our hash list which we share with our partners. We are continuously developing this list and we are working to add a hash list of self-produced material. The aim is to help those children get the images and videos removed from the Internet.



NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) is the US’ national clearing house for reports on child sexual abuse material for US based IT companies. NCMEC also operates a hotline where the public can report suspected child sexual abuse material.