Children are being exposed to high-risk grooming situations on gaming platforms within 19 seconds of going online, a report into abuse has found.
The WeProtect Global Alliance – a global body that evaluates the latest threats to young people and online trends – found an 87 per cent increase in reported child sexual abuse material worldwide since 2019.
In its fourth annual assessment report, experts said high-risk grooming situations between adults and children developed quickly, with an average grooming time of only 45 minutes
The increase in reported incidents has arisen from the soaring popularity of online gaming in recent years, which enables adult-child interactions.
New technological capabilities further exacerbate existing risks, and the situation is no different in the UAE
Iain Drennan, executive director of WeProtect Global Alliance
Gaming platforms also encourage the exchange of virtual gifts and public ranking systems, significantly increasing the risk to vulnerable young people, the report said.
“The Global Threat Assessment’s conclusion paints a critical picture: Child sexual abuse is on the rise, driven largely by the proliferation of social media and technological advancements such as AI,” said Lt Col Dana Al Marzouqi, director general of the International Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Interior.
“In the UAE, we are very positive of the collective efforts happening in real-time, and we will always be advocates for change.
“We are determined to take action, to future-proofing our approach to children’s online safety by implementing the Model National Response on Child Safety, an initiative to build a robust protection system.
“We are eager to share our expertise with those committed to combating child sexual abuse effectively.”
Technology was a major contributory factor in an increasing number of incidents.
Young boys most vulnerable
The research found a significant rise in cases of financial sexual extortion, with perpetrators using generative AI to create child sexual abuse material.
Reports of grooming and manipulating children to share sexual images and videos for extortion and monetary gain increased from 139 in 2021 to more than 10,000 a year later, the research found.
Boys aged between 15 and 17 were most likely to be victims of extortion from others posing as young girls online.
Steps have already been taken to clamp down on big technology companies to ensure AI tools cannot be used to generate deep fake images and videos of child sexual abuse.
Australian regulators will force search engines to draft new codes to prevent the sharing of such AI-created material, while in the UK image-sharing platform Snapchat was warned for a failure to properly assess the privacy risks of its generative AI chatbot.
Security requirements have also been demanded from companies in China that offer generative AI services, including restrictions on the source material used to train AI models.
Meanwhile, in the US, there have been government calls for a recognised watermark to help distinguish AI-generated content from reality.
According to the Internet Watch Foundation, there has been a 360 per cent increase in self-generated sexual imagery of seven to 10-year-olds from 2020 to 2022.
“The swift advancement of technology is straining child protection and justice systems, which in many countries are already stretched thin,” said Sheema Sen Gupta, Unicef director of child protection and WeProtect Global Alliance Policy board member.
“We urgently need to focus on large-scale prevention. This requires governments to invest in evidence-based interventions to protect children from sexual violence and for companies to adopt child-rights-by-design principles when developing digital products and services to prevent potential harm.”
Close legal loopholes
The WeProtect Global Alliance report called on further investment into prevention methods and interventions aimed at those at risk of perpetrating or experiencing abuse.
A globally aligned legislation would go some way to preventing offenders from exploiting legal loopholes by enacting globally consistent internet regulations, experts said.
“Online-facilitated child sexual exploitation and abuse worldwide demands our attention and action right now,” said Iain Drennan, executive director of WeProtect Global Alliance.
“New technological capabilities further exacerbate existing risks and the situation is no different in the UAE.
“To prevent more children from coming to harm, governments, online service providers, charities and companies must step up their efforts and work together to drive change and protect children.”
Updated: October 19, 2023, 12:23 PM