The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) leads the fight to protect children because we believe that every child deserves a safe childhood. As part of that mission, we operate the CyberTipline, the nation’s centralized reporting system for the online sexual exploitation of children. In 2021 alone, the CyberTipline received more than 29 million reports of suspected online child exploitation.
The No. 1 digital threat facing children today is the access potential exploiters have to children while they are online. And kids are online a lot, with more services online than ever and children interacting there with a wider range of peers and adults.
A trend that NCMEC increasingly sees is children creating exploitive content of themselves and sharing it online. According to a 2019 study by the nonprofit THORN, producing and sharing sexual content online is becoming increasingly common, with one in five teenage girls and one in 10 teenage boys reporting they had shared nudes.
In some instances, children may be coerced into sharing content. This falls into a category of online exploitation NCMEC refers to as “online enticement” – any communication in which an individual interacts via the internet with someone believed to be a child with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction. This broad category includes sextortion – a form of online exploitation in which non-physical forms of coercion are used, such as blackmail, to acquire sexual content from, engage in sex with or obtain money from a child.
NCMEC’s CyberTipline analysts have observed a spike in sextortion that primarily targets boys with the intention of obtaining payment financial gains; this is in contrast with more traditional types of sextortion, where grooming can take place over time and the purpose of the blackmail is to obtain more explicit content from the child. This recent type of sextortion typically takes place over a short period of time, sometimes mere hours from the first contact. In many instances, the offender will pose as a teen girl, convince a teen boy to send a nude or sexual image and then threaten to send that image to their friends and family if they don’t pay the offender. The CyberTipline data shows that between 2019 and 2021, the number of reports involving sextortion more than doubled, and in a sampling of reports from early 2022, 79 percent of the offenders were seeking money from the victim. NCMEC wants to let these children know they are not alone and make them aware of the support NCMEC can offer in getting content removed that has been shared on online platforms. This type of victimization takes place across every platform, from social media to gaming, and increasingly on livestreaming apps.
Online enticement is the second largest reporting category to the CyberTipline. The largest is apparent child sexual abuse material (CSAM) with more than 29 million reports in 2021. Reports made to the CyberTipline in 2021 included 85 million images, videos and other files. At NCMEC, we do not use the term “child pornography,” using “child sexual abuse material” instead, which more accurately reflects what is depicted – the rape and hands-on sexual abuse of children. NCMEC is working to change this language throughout the federal criminal code and hopes that changing how we talk about these images will lead to greater understanding of the connections between hands-on child sexual abuse and its manifestation as digital exploitive content. You can report suspected child sexual exploitation, including CSAM and sextortion, to NCMEC’s CyberTipline.
Given that online safety and well-being are related to offline safety and well-being, the best way to promote messaging about digital safety may be to embed it within wider school and community initiatives. Sexual health programs are one area where lessons about sexting and online enticement could be incorporated into messages about healthy sexual development and safe relationships. Other programs focusing on school culture and climate, such as antibullying initiatives, could also be adapted to incorporate these messages.
It is critical to speak frankly with the adults best poised to prevent child abuse about its prevalence and how they can actively work to prevent it. We know child sexual abuse happens in every single community in America. Offenders, both online and offline, rely on social taboo about discussing sex and sexuality with children to perpetrate their crimes. Children who are unaware of what healthy relationships look and feel like, or who believe they cannot discuss sex with the adults in their life, are ideal targets for someone seeking to harm a child. Children who know what appropriate touches are, who have open conversations about sexuality and development with trusted adults in various roles, are far less ideal victims to an offender.
Similarly, parental supervision and supportive family relationships are both protective factors that help prevent child sexual abuse victimization. As part of parental supervision efforts, discussions about children’s digital lives should happen early and often. As soon as children access a tablet or school computer, they are ready for discussions about online safety.
One way parents can take an active role in both fostering a supportive relationship and supervising their children is by interacting with their children in the children’s digital spaces, such as by playing the same video game or using some of the same apps. Taking an active interest in what children like to do online and listening to their experiences helps build a strong relationship but also validates children’s voices and may help them approach a safe adult and report abuse if it were to occur.
Having engaged, supportive families, educators and community members who are aware of and take steps to prevent victimization, is a major factor in preventing child sexual abuse. Access resources from NCMEC at missingkids.org/education.
Susan Kennedy is director of community engagement at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and leads the outreach, training, and prevention teams. For more information about online child sexual exploitation and NCMEC’s prevention resources, visit https://www.missingkids.org.