Susie Hargreaves
Susie Hargreaves pointed out that part of the increase could be attributed to improved detection methods. IWF

A recent report has brought to light a deeply unsettling trend in the realm of child exploitation, over 90 per cent of child sexual abuse imagery is self-generated.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reported the identification of self-generated child sexual abuse material (CSAM) involving children under 10 on over 100,000 web pages in the past year.

This figure marks a significant 66 per cent increase compared to the preceding year.

In total, the IWF confirmed the presence of CSAM on a record 275,655 web pages, reflecting an 8 per cent rise.

The release of this new data has reignited the UK government's campaign against end-to-end encryption, with the IWF lending its support to the cause.

However, Susie Hargreaves, the chief executive of the charity, noted that the escalation in the discovery and removal of such imagery may not necessarily be a cause for concern.

She pointed out that part of the increase could be attributed to improved detection methods.

"It does mean we're detecting more, but I don't think it's ever a good thing if you're finding loads more child sexual abuse. Obviously, the IWF would be most successful if we didn't find any images of child sexual abuse.

"Our mission is the elimination of child sexual abuse – it's not just to find as much as possible and take it down," she said.

This nuanced perspective suggests that a portion of the increase in reported cases may be due to more effective monitoring and reporting mechanisms rather than solely representing a surge in the creation of explicit material.

Experts attribute this rise in self-generated content to the ubiquity of smartphones and easy access to the internet.

Children, often coerced or manipulated by predators, are increasingly becoming both victims and unwitting perpetrators.

The report underscores the critical importance of addressing the root causes of such victimisation, including online grooming and exploitation, in addition to the distribution of explicit content.

The IWF further disclosed that some of the self-generated imagery under scrutiny was crafted by children as young as three years old, with a fifth categorised as causing "category A" harm, denoting the most severe forms of sexual abuse.

Hargreaves highlighted the concerning trend, stating: "Ten years ago, we hadn't seen self-generated content at all, and a decade later we're now finding that 92 per cent of the webpages we remove have got self-generated content on them."

She elaborated, explaining that this content often originates from children in their bedrooms or domestic settings, where they have been deceived, coerced, or induced into engaging in sexual activity, subsequently recorded and shared on child sexual abuse websites.

The charity emphasised that these new figures, compiled from data collected in 2023, reinforce its opposition to Meta's intentions to implement end-to-end encryption for Messenger.

This security feature would render the company unaware of the content being shared on its service.

In 2022, Meta reported 20 million incidents of people sharing child sexual abuse material (CSAM) to the IWF's US counterpart, the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The IWF expresses concerns that the adoption of end-to-end encryption could result in the loss of almost all such reports. Additionally, Hargreaves criticised Apple for abandoning plans to scan for CSAM on iPhones, despite initial assurances that the approach would be privacy-preserving.

The revelations underscore the challenges faced by organisations striving to combat the alarming proliferation of self-generated explicit material involving minors.

The IWF's opposition to end-to-end encryption and its critique of tech giants' strategies reflect an ongoing debate concerning the delicate balance between privacy measures and the imperative to protect vulnerable individuals from online exploitation.

As the digital landscape evolves, collaborative efforts among regulatory bodies, tech companies, and child protection organisations become increasingly critical to addressing these complex issues and ensuring the safety of children online.

The UK government should also continue to advocate for measures to counter online child exploitation. The debate over the balance between privacy and the need for enhanced online safety intensifies.

Efforts to combat this issue extend beyond legislative measures, with technological advancements and improved detection methods playing a crucial role.

The ongoing dialogue between various stakeholders, including government agencies, charities, and technology experts, is essential to formulate comprehensive strategies that protect children from online exploitation while respecting privacy rights.

Protecting children from online exploitation requires a multifaceted strategy that combines effective legislation, robust technological solutions, and widespread education to create a safer digital environment for the next generation.