The COVID effect left our children more vulnerable online

A UNSW report has raised concerns over how COVID-19 impacted online child sexual exploitation (OCSE) investigations globally.

Key findings

  • There were significant changes and disruptions to OCSE professional practice as a result of COVID-19.
  • Major increases in reports and investigations into OCSE were not matched by increased victim identification and victim support efforts.
  • OCSE education and prevention initiatives decreased during the pandemic.
  • The majority of professionals identified increased OCSE offending and risk behaviour as a result of the pandemic.

The research surveyed frontline and specialist law enforcement OCSE professionals from around the world and was funded by the Australian eSafety Commissioner.

The majority of professionals reported increases relating to child sexual abuse material, online grooming, activity in online abuse communities, online risk-taking by minors, and live streaming of abuse material during the pandemic, the report said.

Major increases in OCSE reports and investigations were not matched by increased victim identification and victim support efforts, which remained at pre-pandemic levels. Working from home and other COVID-19 safety measures were also particularly challenging for professionals engaged in investigations work, managing sensitive or illegal content, and who were reliant on multi-agency collaboration.

“It’s concerning that as online risks to children increased during the pandemic, professionals struggled to maintain their existing outreach and prevention efforts,” Dr Michael Salter said.

The findings highlight the need for an adaptive and crisis-prepared child protection system, A/Prof. Salter said.

“We need to see an increase to transparency and accountability measures for technology companies in the prevention, moderation, and reporting of OCSE, as well as develop robust measures of offender and child behaviour online.”

Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said the report’s global findings of increases in reports and investigations involving child exploitation material online during the COVID-19 pandemic mirrors what we have seen in Australia.

“eSafety saw significant spikes in all forms of online harms in 2020 compared to 2019, including a 90 per cent increase in illegal content, the majority of which involves child sexual abuse material,” Ms Inman Grant said.

“This is a real focus of my office and eSafety has been working with all the platforms on something we call Safety by Design, an initiative to encourage tech companies to build in basic safety protections to prevent all forms of online harm from happening in the first place.”

About the research

The findings of the study relate to the global OCSE response and are not specific to any one jurisdiction. The report findings were drawn from responses from specialist frontline professionals from the Australasian region, North America, Europe, the UK, Africa and Middle East. It is based on a survey of specialist law enforcement and OCSE agencies with follow-up interviews. Associate Professor Michael Salter and Dr Tim Wong at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture co-authored the report. The research was funded by the eSafety Commissioner.