When I started working on this issue nearly 10 years ago, it quickly became clear that to effectively respond to the threat of online child sexual abuse at the speed and scale it would require, we needed much, much more data.
That’s one of the reasons we’ve invested in a robust and rigorous research arm here at Thorn, most recently with a spotlight on the attitudes and experiences of the young people who are navigating online risks, often with little or no supervision, in today’s increasingly digital landscape.
It’s also why I welcome and review every new piece of research that touches this space. And with WeProtect’s release of their Global Risk Assessment report for 2021, we have a wealth of new data points that will inform Thorn’s work and the entire digital child safety ecosystem.
An unseen health crises
Among many critical findings, WeProtect’s report found that globally 54% of survey respondents experienced at least one risky online sexual encounter during childhood, according to 5,000 respondents now aged 18-20.
That’s a powerful statistic on its own, but consider that in North America, where Thorn and many of the biggest tech platforms in the world operate, that number jumps to 71%. While we know that there are potential cultural and geographical differences, as well as varying definitions of risky sexual behavior online, this is a data point that warrants further investigation and attention.
We also know from Thorn’s own research that children are often already navigating online risks without the guardrails parents and caregivers might expect. Children have a right to explore the internet in safety and curiosity, yet in many cases the tools and support at their disposal aren’t effective enough to prevent risky encounters.
The Global Risk Assessment also shows that emerging technologies are increasingly being co-opted by abusers to groom and exploit child victims. The report reveals that on dark web forums where abusers and consumers of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) discuss their crimes and trade illegal content, nearly one-third of conversations relating to technology center on platforms where offenders seek to engage children.
This coincides with a rise in livestreaming abuse, which blurs the lines between child sex trafficking and CSAM production, and also presents new challenges to detection, reporting, and victim identification.
And we must consider the impact of a growing trend toward encryption and other privacy-forward environments — 68% of respondents who said they had received sexual content as a child were sent the content on private messaging services.
Together, we are making change — but we must act quickly
WeProtect’s report provides many new data points, and we look forward to continuing to unpack what it means for the global conversation around online child safety. This is still a vastly under-researched space, and to develop appropriate responses that defend children from abuse and prevent online harm, we must keep learning and incorporating points of view from a variety of sources and perspectives.
Research like this, along with the original research being conducted here at Thorn and many other organizations, led us to build Thorn for Parents, providing parents with the tools to begin having conversations around digital safety with their kids early, often, and without judgement. But this is only one piece of addressing this urgent need.
What I’ve come to realize over the last decade is that there is no silver bullet, no singular point of focus that will turn the tide in this epidemic. What’s needed is broad change across every point in the ecosystem that ultimately produces a healthier internet for our children — one where abuse is inherently mitigated, where parents and youth are empowered with effective tools and knowledge, and where every child is equally protected from online harms.
First, we must acknowledge the difficult realities that the research of WeProtect, Thorn, and so many others is surfacing — as parents, as software engineers, as law enforcement, as policymakers, as victims, as investors — we all have an opportunity to make real, positive change for the most vulnerable children.
And in doing so, we will build a better, more connected, and healthier digital ecosystem for every child.
— Julie Cordua, Thorn CEO