Online child exploitation reports surge in COVID-19 era

Published: Aug. 7, 2020 at 2:03 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 12, 2020 at 8:52 AM CDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Police arrested a man this week, accusing him of strangling a 14-year-old boy to death after luring him out of his home in Connecticut. The family says the two met over Snapchat.

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, and experts say the pandemic and isolation makes kids more vulnerable.

“We have really seen an explosion of reports of child sexual exploitation,” said Yiota Souras of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Souras says for the first half of this year, reports of child porn, trafficking, and other types of exploitation across the country rose by 90 percent, up from 2019. She says the pandemic was one factor that motivated predators.

“Predators openly discussing the fact that stay-at-home was beneficial to them,” said Souras. “More children being at home, online with very disrupted schedules and being more vulnerable to their approaches for sexual enticement.”

NCMEC hopes kids, teachers, parents and school leaders take advantage of resources available online for educational awareness and safety.

“We’re fighting a never-ending battle here in the Internet crimes against children world,” said Richard Bell, the Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor who oversees Ohio’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit.

Bell says investigators were alarmed by a ‘bubble’ where they saw reports rise significantly when the pandemic began, hitting a peak of cyber tips of child exploitation during the lock-downs.

This chart from the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Unit (ICAC) indicating the reports received for the first half of 2020 across Ohio.

Ohio's cyber tips received for online child exploitation for the first half of 2020.
Ohio's cyber tips received for online child exploitation for the first half of 2020.(Ohio ICAC)

Bell says he thinks various dynamics created a perfect storm for so many reports.

“We have a greater number of people using [social media], we think, and we also have all of these new algorithms that the service providers are catching people, and then we have NCMEC sending the volume to us for us to figure out what’s happened,” explained Bell. “We’re concerned about this rise that we’ve had the past few months, and we’re going to go from 7,000 tips to possibly 12,000 tips this year, if this were to continue.”

Bell says 2020 could see a record-high number of cyber tips reporting online child exploitation.

Ultimately, Bell says prevention is the best weapon in this fight, as he says extensive resources must be invested for investigations and prosecutions of child sex crimes. Bell says parents must do their homework to know the social media apps children are using.

“We used to call it ‘stranger danger,’ right? Well, you can have that stranger danger on the Internet...There are certain apps out there that allow your children to speak with strangers directly and immediately,” said Bell.

With millions of pictures and videos of child exploitation circulating online, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced the “Earn It Act”, a bill targeting social media companies that do not take down abusive content.

“The stuff out there will make you sick to your stomach. It’s a national disgrace, and these companies that allow this garbage to be put out and stay out forever need to change their ways…or they should be sued,” said Graham.

The bill would lift legal immunity for service providers that refuse to block child porn and set up a commission to help companies develop best practices.

You can hear more of Graham’s thoughts on the legislation in the video below.

The bill recently passed out of the Senate Judiciary committee with unanimous, bipartisan support.

The Internet Association, which represents social media companies impacted by the Earn It Act, posted this statement on their website:

“The internet industry shares the Senate Judiciary Committee’s goal of ending child exploitation online and appreciates their continued efforts to improve the EARN IT Act. However, we have serious remaining concerns. Foremost, this bill will not help achieve our shared goal and instead will create a harmful lack of coherence in state laws involving CSAM. The lack of clear federal standards would impede providers from their continued work to tackle this issue. IA hopes to work with lawmakers to improve this bill.”

Gray DC reached out to the Internet Association via phone and email to get more information about their concerns, but we have not yet heard back.

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