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Police, Advocates See Online Child Exploitation Surge as Result of Pandemic

Law enforcement is grappling with an increase in child exploitation as online activity surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, police and child advocates said in interviews. Law enforcement officials cited cyber tip increases across the country. Advocates want more investigatory resources, national legislation and for Big Tech to be held accountable.

Every single task force throughout the U.S. has had their numbers increase,” said New Jersey Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Commander John Pizzuro. The ICAC program includes 61 coordinated task forces representing about 4,500 federal, state and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. New Jersey’s ICAC received about 3,600 cyber tips March 1-July 31, triple the same period last year, he said. That includes a likely 50% increase in tips about online predators, with the rest of the increase attributable to more children sharing content that they shouldn’t, and improved reporting by companies.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) announced arrests Wednesday of 21 persons charged with allegedly sexually exploiting children online. Tips to ICAC about “potential predatory conduct against children are up as much as 50 percent during the COVID emergency as homebound children, starved for outside contact, spend more time on their devices, and opportunistic sexual predators target them online,” said Grewal. “As children return to virtual learning this fall, they will be spending even more time online, in many cases without any in-person teacher supervision or peer contact,” which “may make them even more vulnerable.”

Online child predator behavior is mirroring the increase in the amount of time children are spending on social media and the internet, said National Center on Sexual Exploitation Director-Corporate and Strategic Initiatives Lina Nealon. She urged social media companies to put stricter parental controls in place as the default, so users have to opt out of safety features, and to educate parents about the risks. She credited TikTok for restricting direct messaging from strangers to users under 16, and Google for improved safety features for Chromebooks. Facebook, Google and the Internet Association didn’t comment.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline has had a rise in reports of suspected child sexual exploitation online, but spokesperson Christine Barnd said it can’t “necessarily say that it’s a result of the pandemic. A significant factor contributing to the increase in reports are several child sexual abuse videos that went viral.”

NCMEC in June had a 13.9% decrease in CyberTipline reports from the prior year, and in May a 126% increase. NCMEC partly attributed the dramatic increase in reports to several viral videos, one of which involved a young child and was widely shared in an effort to identify and rescue the victim.

Stuck at home during the pandemic, more people -- children and predators -- are online and sharing viral videos, said Pizzuro, saying children’s average screen time has more than doubled.

There are child predators that are absolutely seeking out children to exploit online during this because they know that they are online more,” said Georgia ICAC Commander Debbie Garner. In 2019, the Georgia task force received an average 600 cyber tips a month from NCMEC, she said. In March this year, when quarantine started, it received about 1,000 cyber tips, and in April it got more than 1,300, she said.

New Mexico’s attorney general office has “received more tips related to possible exploitation of children than we had at this point last year,” a spokesperson emailed us Friday. “Our office will continue to hold both multi-billion dollar companies and individual predators accountable if they exploit or harm a child.”

Actions in New Jersey indicate an increase in online predatory behavior, said World Without Exploitation National Director Lauren Hersh. The virtual world has become the classroom and primary place of interaction for children, she said. It’s critical for social media platforms to have large teams monitoring and bouncing perpetrators, she added. She also singled out PornHub for turning a blind eye to numerous videos featuring child victims.

Enough Is Enough CEO Donna Rice Hughes agreed PornHub is perpetuating the issue while making millions for spreading illegal content. She noted Attorney General William Barr said the department was at a breaking point in 2019, when 69 million illegal images and videos surfaced across the web. That criminal activity has exploded nationally means law enforcement is that much more ill-equipped to handle the issue. She said Congress should give law enforcement more resources and staff increases. She also backed passage of the Earn It Act (see 2008050039).

Nealon’s organization also supports passage of the legislation, which is awaiting Senate Floor consideration. Nealon applauded New Jersey’s announcement this week, saying more states should be prioritizing the issue during the pandemic.

Better policing by tech companies of apps that allow anonymity would help curb the problem that’s been enlarged by COVID-19, said Pizzuro. “It’s easy for this type of behavior to happen on their platform.” Tech companies “know it’s happening” but don’t want to admit it by adding tools to stop it, he said: “No one wants to talk about it.” There will be a problem until apps like Whisper, Skout, Kik and Omega -- now protected by federal law -- are held liable, he said. Pizzuro also urged more prevention awareness by parents and educators. ICAC task forces don’t have resources to investigate every tip, he said: “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

Georgia needs more people to keep up with the number of investigations because the number of cyber tips was increasing even before the pandemic, Garner said. When Garner started in October 2013, the task force received about 180 monthly, and there’s been about a 2,000% increase in tips since 2008, she said. Educate kids more about the danger and impress on parents the importance of monitoring children’s internet activity, she urged. The Georgia official knows there are privacy rights issues and that smaller companies might “not have the personnel or the infrastructure to do it like Facebook or Google can,” she said. “I’m always going to err on the side of keeping kids safe.”