Child sex exploitation is on the rise in Canada during the pandemic
Police and experts say abusers have been taking advantage of children spending more time online
Reports of online sexual exploitation of Canadian children have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic as abusers take advantage of the fact that kids are spending more time online.
Stephen Sauer, director of Cybertip.ca, said his organization saw an 81 per cent spike over April, May and June in reports from youth who had been sexually exploited, and reports of people trying to sexually abuse children.
"It seems to be an epidemic right now online," he said.
Sgt. Arnold Guerin of the RCMP's National Child Exploitation Crime Centre, which coordinates investigations into child sexual exploitation online and child pornography, said his unit also has seen an increase in reports of sexual exploitation of children.
At the outset of the pandemic, he said, his unit saw offenders on livestreaming sites, social media and on the dark web looking for children to chat with online, or to meet in person so that they could sexually assault them.
Where predators gather online
"In March, when everything started, we weren't immediately seeing an increase of child sexual exploitation reports being made from big companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook," Guerin said.
"Since then, we have seen increased reports from referrals made to Canada from all of those companies and from others."
When online companies see child abuse or child pornography on their platforms, they refer the information to police in the country where the abuser lives, Guerin said.
"So every referral that we get — and we're getting them in the thousands per month — are Canadians who are sharing child pornography actively on all of those social networks," he said.
While Guerin's unit has seen a steady increase in child sexual exploitation online over time, he said the latest increase appears to be the result of the pandemic.
"Our feeling is that the increase is definitely related to COVID," he said. "Because more people are at home. More people are online and children are spending an inordinate amount of time in front of screens, whether those are computers or mobile devices."
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In Alberta, 18 men from across the province are facing a total of 65 charges related to online child exploitation. Alberta's Law Enforcement Response Team (ALERT) Internet Child Exploitation unit received 243 reports instances of online child exploitation in Alberta in March — well above the average of 110.
"This is a level of activity that has been unparalleled in the existence of the ICE unit," Supt. Dwayne Lakusta said in a media statement.
Canada is not alone.
A report last month by Europol — the EU's central law enforcement agency — also found an increase in the sharing of child sexual abuse material online during the pandemic.
"This harmful sharing and re-sharing of content that victimizes children has been repeatedly detected at record levels during the COVID-19 pandemic within Europe," said the report.
According to the U.S National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, "there has been a 106 per cent increase in such activity across the globe," the report added.
A surge in child porn
Europol found messages in one dark web forum for "cappers" — people who capture livestream videos of children being forced or coerced into producing videos of a sexual nature. The number of such messages and threads tripled from 500 between December and February to 1,500 between March and May.
The report also predicts the surge of activity during the pandemic will fuel an increase in sexual abuse of children and child pornography available online.
"We may expect to see a further increase of this material being spread and children being victimized in the coming months," the authors wrote.
While such activity has increased during the pandemic, Guerin said his unit hasn't seen a change in the types of crimes it sees happening online.
"We are seeing images and videos of very young children. We have seen images as young as infants and newborns being sexually assaulted all the way up to the age of 17," he said.
"The majority of the content that we investigate and review is largely pre-pubescent, so before puberty, of very young children. They are often of sexual assault or in some cases violent in nature."
Guerin said the abusers and those seeking to exploit children sexually can be found wherever children hang out online.
"They're hanging out on all of them," he said. "So it's Omegle. It's Facebook. It's Microsoft. It's Google, Snapchat — any platform where you're going to find children, you're going to find this kind of material being reported."
Watch: RCMP Sgt. Arnold Guerin offers advice to parents
Sauer said he is also seeing reports of abusers hanging out on sites like Omegle and Chatroulette, which allow users to chat with strangers.
Sauer said kids should make sure they know who they're really dealing with online.
"You would want to make sure that you're cautious about engaging with individuals that you don't know online," he said. "That you are wary of individuals asking sexual questions, or for sexual pictures or images. Anything that appears to make you feel uncomfortable.
"Also, for youth, if a situation has gone too far, find a safe parent or a safe adult to talk to about the situation. Someone in your life that you know that will help you through the situation. That's the way to go about it."
"The really important thing is to be involved in your child's life online as much as you would in the real world," he said. "I would have honest conversations about them ... to tell them that if anything happens to them online that makes them fear for their online safety, that it's okay to seek out the help of a parent and that they won't be in trouble for asking for help."
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org