Disrupting Harm findings reveal new and crucial insights into online child sexual exploitation and abuse
Disrupting Harm is a large-scale research project generating unique insights on how online child sexual exploitation and abuse is manifesting in 13 countries and providing tailored roadmaps for countries to strengthen their prevention and response systems.
The findings from the first phase of Disrupting Harm are out now and provide crucial insights on online child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA), the gaps in existing systems at country level and highlight key recommendations for governments and other stakeholders on tackling online CSEA.
In early 2019, the Safe Online Initiative at End Violence Partnership invested $7 million to develop Disrupting Harm, a ground-breaking and innovative research project that aims to better understand how digital technology facilitates the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. The Partnership brought together and funded three global organisations – ECPAT International, INTERPOL and the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti – to undertake new research in 13 countries across Eastern and Southern Africa and Southeast Asia. This type of high-quality research and assessment is new and unique in that it uses a multi-sector approach and the specific expertise of these three global agencies and their local partners. Additionally, the scalable methodology of DH enables countries to compare results, identify national differences and global similarities, to help policymakers and practitioners understand how this problem needs to be tackled in-country and internationally.
The success of the first phase of the project has led to a renewed $7 million commitment in 2022 and expansion in 11 countries across 3 new regions.
For more than two decades, we have used the internet to connect with family and friends worldwide. Internet usage was already increasing year-over-year, and the tools we use to connect have been rapidly evolving – but then we were hit by COVID-19, which has further accelerated the shift online of many aspects of our lives.
Being online is often a very positive experience for children, providing them opportunities to learn and socialise. But it can also increase the risk of exposure to negative experiences, including online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
However, despite the understanding that children’s experiences are frequently mediated by digital technologies, – there is a lack of evidence to quantify these risks and identify which children are more likely to be harmed. This makes it difficult to prevent and disrupt situations of abuse and exploitation. There is an urgent need to build a more comprehensive understanding of the threats of online child sexual exploitation and abuse at national and regional levels.
Disrupting Harm was created to respond to this need. To prevent and respond to online child sexual exploitation and abuse, we must base our solutions on the latest data and evidence.
Disrupting harm to children is the responsibility of every adult, including caregivers, law enforcement and justice professionals, governments and technology companies operating the platforms children are using.
Leveraging the unique and comprehensive evidence gathered, Disrupting Harm identifies practical and actionable solutions to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation both online and offline. The project was implemented in 13 countries across Eastern and Southern Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda) and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam).
Researchers have conducted national assessments based on nine distinct research activities in each country. Data were collected from government actors, law enforcement, children and their caregivers, and survivors of exploitation and abuse – all to create a fuller understanding of the threat of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
- Desk-based research on existing laws and policies to provide better contextual insights in each country.
- Nationally representative survey with (internet-using) children aged 12-17 and one of their caregivers in each of the 13 countries to understand more about children’s online activities, skills, and engagement in risky online behaviors.
UNDERSTANDING THE THREAT OF ONLINE CHILD SEXUAL EXPLOITATION & ABUSE
- Nationally representative survey with (internet-using) children aged 12-17 and one of their caregivers in each of the 13 countries to understand more about children’s online experiences, in particular experiences and predictors of online violence, sexual exploitation, and abuse.
- Data from law enforcement agencies, specialized units and partner organisations to measure the scope and nature of the problem. Interviews with national law enforcement and justice actors to better understand the context, risk, and potential challenges they face in addressing the threat of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
- Surveys of frontline service providers and welfare staff to gain insights in each country.
NATIONAL RESPONSE TO THE THREAT
- Interviews with national duty-bearers to gain a deep understanding of legal and policy environment.
- Surveys of frontline service providers and welfare staff to gain insights in each country.
- Interviews with victims, their caregivers, and representatives from the justice sector to determine how the justice systems is supporting children.
- Survivor-centred conversations with young survivors to ensure their perspectives are understood and well incorporated.
- Statistics and other information from helpline and hotline operators and the industry.
Disrupting Harm’s methodology can be adapted to any country or region. It will enable cross-country comparisons and collaboration to tackle online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Wherever possible, all Disrupting Harm research was conducted in each country to allow for regional analysis later this year.
To ensure cutting edge results from the research endeavour, advice was sought from global experts on the Disrupting Harm findings and recommendations. A list of the members of the Panel of Advisors can be found here
The findings of the Disrupting Harm 1 reveal crucial insights on online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Disrupting Harm (DH) enables valuable cross-countries analysis to identify comment trends and patterns which are critical to better understand how this phenomenon manifests and evolves across national borders and regions. Thanks to DH we now have clear outlines of children experiences of online sexual abuse, with insights into children’s disclosures, law enforcement, legislation and more.
Here’s what we learnt about children’s experiences from the DH project:
Disrupting Harm data estimates that millions of children were subjected to online child sexual exploitation and abuse across the 13 DH countries in 2020 alone. The proportions of children subjected to OCSEA in the past year varied from 1% in Viet Nam to 20% of children in the Philippines. In line with other research on violence against children, these estimates are expected to be under-reported; the conclusion is that, at minimum, 1-20% of children were subjected to OCSEA in the past year alone, depending on the country.
- In almost all 13 countries, offenders of OCSEA were more likely to be someone the child already knows in person (on average accounting for 60% of cases). The most common offender was an older friend or someone the child knew from before (aged 18+), followed by a friend under 18. While unknown people still present a considerable risk, especially for children in some countries (primarily Malaysia and the Philippines) the danger is often closer to home.
- Approximately one in three children did not disclose their abuse to anyone. Nearly half of those children said it was because they did not know where to go or who to tell. Children who disclosed their abuse most often told a friend or a sibling as opposed to caregivers or teachers. This potentially places a heavy burden on peers that they should not have to carry alone.
- Children are not reporting their experiences of OCSEA through formal channels. On average, only 3% of OCSEA victims across the 13 countries called a helpline for support. Similarly, only 3% contacted the police.
- Most children who experience OCSEA have also experienced sexual violence in-person.
- Over half of children subjected to OCSEA said it last occurred on social media. Facebook or Facebook Messenger were by far the most common platforms where children were subjected to OCSEA, in some countries accounting for over 90% of the cases we learned about directly from children.
- OCSEA is significantly linked with higher risk of both self-harm and suicidal ideation across 7 countries included in Disrupting Harm. Whether or not a child has experienced in-person violence, experiencing OCSEA further increases the risk of mental health problems.
EXPLORE THE DATA INSIGHTS:
Disrupting Harm Data Insights 1:
Children’s experiences of online sexual exploitation and abuse in 12 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa and Southeast Asia
Disrupting Harm Data Insights 3:
Access to justice and legal remedies for children subjected to online sexual exploitation and abuse
Disrupting Harm Data Insight 5:
Promising Government Interventions Addressing Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
Leveraging the unique and comprehensive evidence gathered, Disrupting Harm (DH) identifies practical and actionable solutions to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation both online and offline. The project was implemented in 13 countries across Eastern and Southern Africa. Below are reports that are now available: Kenya, Uganda, Thailand, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Philippines, Viet Nam, Namibia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Mozambique, and South Africa.
Disrupting Harm in South Africa is the 13 in a series of reports which shares the findings of children’s perceptions of and participation in various online practices, as well as exposes their experiences of online child sexual exploitation and abuse in South Africa.
Disrupting Harm in South Africa has highlighted a number of key areas regarding online child sexual exploitation and abuse:
- Children in South Africa are being subjected to online sexual exploitation and abuse - Between 7-10% of internet-using children, aged 12 - 17 years, were subjected to clear examples of online child sexual exploitation and abuse in the past year. Experiences reported by children included grooming, being offered gifts or money in exchange for sexual acts, and being threatened or blackmailed to engage in sexual acts.
- Taboos and stigma may increase a child’s vulnerability to online sexual exploitation and abuse in South Africa - 48 out of 49 frontline workers said they saw, “taboos around discussing sex and sexuality as a key factor increasing children’s vulnerability to online sexual exploitation and abuse.” Additionally, 65% of frontline workers told Disrupting Harm researchers the stigma within communities is a main reason why children do not report the online sexual abuse and exploitation they endure.
- There is a lack of knowledge about online child sexual exploitation and abuse - 71% of frontline workers indicated that a lack of knowledge and understanding about the risks of online child sexual exploitation and abuse was one of the most significant reasons for the lack of reporting because parents couldn’t provide their children with the appropriate advice.
Extensive data collection took place in South Africa from early 2020 through to early 2021. Data analysis for South Africa was finalised in April 2022.
To ensure cutting edge results from this research endeavour, advice was sought from global experts on the Disrupting Harm in South Africa findings and recommendations. A list of the members of the Panel of Advisors can be found here.
Leveraging the unique and comprehensive evidence gathered, Disrupting Harm in South Africa identifies to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation, both online and offline in South Africa. The recommendations were discussed at national consultations on 21 June 2022.
ECPAT International – carried out eleven interviews with senior national duty-bearers; carried out a literature review prior to primary data collection which consisted of comprehensive analysis of the legislation, policy and systems addressing OCSEA in South Africa; carried out data collection from non-law enforcement stakeholders; carried out a survey with 49 client-facing frontline workers to explore the scope and context of online child sexual exploitation and abuse in South Africa; interviewed ten criminal justice professionals; and carried out one interview with a young survivor of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
INTERPOL – collected and analysed both qualitative and quantitative data from national law enforcement agencies, relevant specialised units and partner organisations to measure the scope and nature of OCSEA; and conducted a qualitative assessment on the capacity of national law enforcement authorities to respond to OCSEA cases by interviewing serving officers.
UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti – carried out a national representative household survey of 2,642 internet-using children aged 12-17 in South Africa. Additionally, 1,393 caregivers of the children surveyed were also included in the study.
These resources are created to help partners amplify the work of Disrupting Harm, the first-ever research project of its kind. Implemented by ECPAT International, INTERPOL, and UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti, with financial support from the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children through its Safe Online initiative, Disrupting Harm aims to better understand how digital technology facilitates sexual abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents, both online and offline.
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