February 11 is #SaferInternetDay which aims to create both a safer and a better internet, where everyone is empowered to use technology responsibly, respectfully, critically, and creatively. This is particularly important as the instances of online sexual exploitation are increasing. Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable.
Online sexual exploitation is a complex and global problem, and it is continuing to grow at an alarming pace. A record 45 million online photos and videos of child sexual exploitation were reported by tech companies in 2018. The number of sexual exploitation photos and images posted online reported to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children rose from 1.1 million in 2014 to 18.4 million in 2018. In 2019, the number of reports had increased to 70 million.
The growth of social media has allowed exploiters more opportunities to come into contact and anonymously interact with an expanding number of potential victims. Children and young people are especially connected online, with one in three internet users worldwide under the age of 18 years according to UNICEF. That’s a staggering 122 million children coming online in one year alone.
Exploiters are taking advantage of the anonymity provided by the internet, as well as very limited regulation, enabling them to easily come into contact with potential victims. At any one time, 750,000 individuals across the world are looking to connect with children and young people online for sexual exploitation.
Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation
Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. They experience a double layer of discrimination: they are girls and they are young. As girls enter adolescence, they are sexualized by society: both physically as their bodies develop and they begin menstruating and also in how they are viewed in society. A girl’s own sexuality – however undeveloped, unexplored, and not yet self-realized – will be to varying degrees outside of her control.
Society’s treatment of girls in everyday life is mirrored and amplified online. Social media magnifies gender stereotypes and pressures for teenage girls to conform to certain sexualized narratives. Adolescent girls are being groomed and coerced to stand before cameras with instructions to take images and videos that are broadcast to exploiter networks around the world. In other cases, they are sharing videos and images with their peers on smartphones and social media. For the most part, the materials will stay with the person they were intended for, but sometimes they are shared further, between other peers at school and onto the internet. Once online, it is difficult to control or stop continued sharing.
The long-lasting impact on victims includes physical harm, social isolation and stigma, trauma and mental health problems.
In particular, adolescent girls often fall through the cracks in the law, without the same basic protections as younger children to be kept safe, recover or get justice. Furthermore, they typically have lesser legal protections when they become adults, meaning they are blamed and even criminalized rather than supported as victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Analysis of the problem and identification and development of solutions needs to include a gendered lens so that the gendered vulnerabilities and needs of adolescent girls are considered and addressed.
We must all work together to build a better internet
The global, gendered, ever-evolving and complex nature of online sexual exploitation requires that all of us come together to find solutions, this is where Equality Now is stepping in.
We are applying a gendered lens to research and understand the misuse of the internet and technology to facilitate sexual exploitation. As we seek to consolidate our contribution to addressing the problem, our approach will put survivor voices, experiences and perspectives at the center of understanding the problem, and in identifying and formulating the solutions. We are focused on understanding the survivor experience of routes into online sexual exploitation, how that interacts with sexual exploitation in-person and the mechanisms for entrapment and exploitation over time.
Technological solutions need to work alongside legal and policy solutions. What we know now is that the existing legal frameworks are diverse and insufficient to handle the global and ever-evolving nature of technology and the internet. And that reliance on national frameworks alone would result in different standards. Finally, we know that not everyone around the world is being afforded the same protections. Equality Now is currently undertaking a review of existing international and regional legal frameworks relevant to online sexual exploitation to understand in greater detail good practices, gaps, and opportunities.
Online sexual exploitation is complex and no one organization has the solutions. At Equality Now, our approach is to promote greater engagement of a wide range of actors including civil society, governments, technology companies and platforms, international organizations, research institutions, survivors and many more to work together to develop legal, policy and technological solutions for a safer internet.