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Canada sees 100% uptick in reported online child sex abuse images during pandemic

Canadian Centre for Child Protection releases 'Unwanted Followers' video to raise awareness about the impact of child abuse imagery and mark removal of millions of illegal images.

Editor's note: This story deals with child sexual abuse and may be triggering for some. Proceed with due care.

A haunting new video, Unwanted Followers from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, aims to get people talking and thinking about the impact on survivors of child sexual abuse material.

The video depicts a young girl in her home who is a victim of recorded child sexual abuse. 

Scenes that follow show how the abuse and the resulting images haunt her even when she is an adult through memories and people who view them online. 

"I think what we hope people take away from it is some insight into what our survivors are facing," said Lindsay Lobb, senior support services manager with the charity, which works to reduce the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

"It's very haunting, but it's not unrealistic. I think this is what our young people and our adult survivors are faced with every day."

Reports to the organization of online child sexual abuse material have gone up 100% since the start of the pandemic, Lobb said. 

"Our tip line is extremely busy — related to both parents coming in and reporting and requesting assistance, as well as youth coming in and self-reporting and asking for help."

And while many folks, including journalists, use the term "child porn" to describe the images of abuse, that terminology is something Lobb hopes changes because it doesn't accurately reflect the harm done. 

"Because of the connotation around the word 'pornography,' and that being consensual," Lobb said. "What we're talking about is evidence of a crime...It's physical evidence of child sexual abuse. And so that is why we really hope that that terminology is something that people utilize not only in reporting but also day-to-day. It just more accurately describes and reflects what people are facing."

It's an epidemic

Girls and boys of all ages are included in the six million images and videos of child sexual exploitation the Canadian Centre for Child Protection had removed from the internet through its Project Arachnid initiative. 

"When you look at what project Arachnid has detected since 2017, it's almost 43 million images 42.7 million possible images of child sexual abuse material. And that is just what we were able to locate," Lobb said. "Certainly, we can comfortably say that this is an epidemic."

Some cases involve someone with access to the child filming their abuse, but in other cases, children are ending up sexually victimized through social media platforms, Lobb said. 

"Where offenders or adults are contacting children to coerce them into sharing sexual imagery," Lobb said. "And the imagery is shared, and then they are extorted for money or for more images."

The impact

The existence of the imagery can impact child sexual abuse victims in several ways, Lobb noted. 

"It is not simply sharing an image. It is sharing and viewing and getting pleasure from the most extreme abuse of a child," she said. 

"In addition to the secrecy surrounding the abuse itself, the knowledge of the imagery acts as that additional layer of silencing," she added. "What we're also seeing is that it can have lifelong impacts in terms of physical circumstances where abuse has ended, but the imagery continues to be shared, there are people who search out and seek out these children to try to attempt to gain further imagery. And we do have survivors who face very real safety issues if people share where they live or share the school that they go to or where they work, which does happen to survivors."

Take it down

The organization wants tech companies to vigorously fight the uploading and sharing of these criminal images.

"We are asking them to prioritize the removal of child sexual abuse material... and to utilize the proactive tools — there are proactive tools to prevent or limit the reappearance of child sexual abuse material," Lobb said. 

"And also to include and ensure that their sites or their platforms have specific reporting options related to child sexual abuse."

For the public, Lobb says if anyone is concerned about a child, report that to the appropriate authority, whether that be child welfare, police or, which is Canada's tipline for reporting online child sexual abuse and exploitation. 

"I think what's really important is that we're not going to prevent child sexual abuse material; what we're going to prevent — as a member of the public — is child sexual abuse," she said. 

The organization also has its Kids in the Know program, which is an interactive safety education program designed for students from kindergarten to high school to, ideally, help arm them with tools to detect and avoid abuse.


While it is a dark and depressing thing, there is hope, stresses Lobb. 

"Yes, we are detecting these images... but we are [also] actively participating in the removal of images of these sexual abuses of children. We hear time and time again, from the survivors that we work with the relief that that allows them — to know that somebody is helping them to get these images down off the internet is massive," she said. "It is hopeful when we have young people who are coming [to] us and looking for help, and they are able to take steps to tell a parent and we can help them with that, and we can help them sort of move forward and disrupt the online communication with somebody that's luring them."

Lobb said it is also important that survivors of abuse understand that it doesn't mean the end for them. 

"These situations, while they may have lifelong impacts, this doesn't define who these children are, and there is help out there."

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