Yle investigates: Online sexual exploitation of children alarmingly prevalent

Nearly 90 percent of children in one survey had received sexually explicit messages from an adult, but cases very rarely reach the awareness of parents or authorities.

Several thousands of reports of online child sexual exploitation are made annually. Image: AOP

Sexual exploitation of children through social media is alarmingly prevalent, according to police and several child protection organisations.

Yle asked Victim Support Finland (RIKU), the police and six child protection organisations – Save the Children (Pelastakaa Lapset ry), Mannerheim League for Child Welfare (Mannerheimin Lastensuojeluliitto), SOS Children's Village, Youth Exit (Nuorten Exit), Protect Children (Suojellaan Lapsia), Sua varten somessa (Translation: For you, on social media) – how widespread the phenomenon is and what should be done about it.

The answers show that the problem is widespread but hidden from plain view.

Why is the situation acute?

Yle's survey shows that several thousands of reports of online child sexual exploitation are made annually.

For example, the Save the Children’s crisis helpline receives about 3,000 tips every year regarding messages that could be considered sexual abuse aimed towards children through the internet, or the distribution of illegal images associated with such events.

The Sua varten somessa-project reports that their employees have 300 to 400 conversations with children and young people every month, most of them related to sexual harassment.

Victim Support Finland and the SOS Children's Villages also have conversations with children, relating to this topic, every week.

According to a report by Save the Children Finland, published last spring, almost 90 percent of children had received messages from an adult that were sexual in nature. Nearly 80 percent of children had received unsolicited nude pictures from an adult.

About one thousand sexual offences involving children were reported to the police last year. According to police statistics, the internet was listed as the crime scene in about 400 sexual offences targeting children.

The number of contacts with organisations and victim support services is many times higher than the number of criminal reports made to the police, resulting in sexual exploitation of children on social media becoming a buried crime.

According to police and these organisations, bringing cases to light is extremely important.

Studies have shown that the consequences of sexual abuse in children can be long-lasting and far-reaching. They are associated with chronic pain, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, inflammation, and post-traumatic stress, among other issues.

Online abuse can be just as harmful as physical abuse, experts say.

"The sooner a child receives help, the better he or she recovers," says psychotherapist Nina Vaaranen-Valkonen, executive director of the Protect Children Association.

What constitutes sexual abuse?

According to contacts with organisations and the Victim Support Service, children and young people face, for example, the following types of exploitation and harassment on social media:

- Messages that are sexual in nature

- Pressure to send images

- Sending revealing images or videos without the consent of the recipient

- Pressure to meet in person

- Altering images to make them sexual in nature and distributing them

- Redistribution of revealing images without consent

- Name-calling and bullying of a sexual nature

- Grooming, i.e., efforts to establish a trusted relationship with a child to enable subsequent sexual abuse.

Some young people are able to identify the activity described above as disruptive and even illegal, but consider it a part of social media, says Maria Talvitie of the Sua varten somessa project.

"It feels like being sexually harassed is accepted as a necessary evil from the time you create a user account," Talvitie adds.

For example, more than a third of the tip-offs received by Save the Children last year contained material or activity that is considered illegal child sexual abuse.

Saara Asmundela, a commissioner from the Central Finland Police Department specialising in crimes targeting children, says that a criminal report should be made whenever a child under the age of 16 is on the receiving end of sexually explicit messages.

"If you are unsure if a crime has taken place, you can always approach the police and ask. Even if it is not a crime, the report can help with the investigation of another crime," she says.

Commissioner Saara Asmundela from the Central Finland Police Department. Image: Isto Janhunen /Yle

According to Asmundela, the perpetrators usually have more than one victim. Therefore, reporting all communication that is sexual in tone is likely to help more children.

Where, and to whom, does this happen?

According to Yle's investigation, children and young people are sexually exploited on Snapchat, Tiktok, Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp, Onlyfans and Kik Messenger, among other platforms.

In cases reported to the police, abuse has also taken place within online video games favoured by children.

According to crime statistics most of the victims are 15-year-old girls, says Asmundela.

"The closer you get to the age of 16 years, the higher the proportion of victims. The younger the child, the less likely he or she is to be the target of such a crime," she says.

However, according to Asmundela, approaching very young children through sexually explicit communication has become more prevalent as of late.

A sexual offence case in Central Finland from last June, targeting up to 200 children, revealed victims as young as eight years old. In January, a man from Espoo was sentenced to prison after coercing and sexually abusing several boys aged 10-13 through Whatsapp and Fortnite.

Studies show that girls are more likely to be sexually taken advantage of than boys. The reason may be that the perpetrators are mostly men, but on the other hand, boys are less likely to report sexual harassment.

Although girls report their experiences more frequently than boys, they also rarely report these cases to adults. Most often, experiences of sexual abuse are told to a friend.

According to the 2019 school health survey, fewer than a third of girls in grades 8 and 9 and only a fifth of boys of the same age had reported experiencing sexual harassment or violence to an adult.

Why do children remain silent?

According to the results of a Finnish study published last year, these cases are very rarely reported, even when the child tells an adult about their experience.

A quarter of the children in the study said that when they reported sexual abuse to an adult, they were not believed, the people they told became angry with them or they were advised not to talk about it. A child protection and/or criminal report was filed in only about a tenth of these situations.

Children don't share their online encounters with adults, because they don't believe that they are interested. Image: Siam Pukkato / AOP

Only around half of the children in these instances felt that they had received comfort and support in the situation.

In the 2013 Child Victim Surveys, the majority of children justified their failure to report on the grounds that they did not dare to tell anyone about the matter, or that did not believe that anyone was interested in what had happened.

This concerns Asmundela.

"Encountering sexual exploitation is alarmingly common among young people, but only a fraction of the cases come to the attention of the authorities. This means that there isn’t a desire to report these cases to the police, or that the encounters are perceived as shameful. I would like to change that," she says.

However, according to Asmundela, conversations and awareness of the phenomenon have increased the number of criminal reports in recent years.

What do we know about the perpetrators?

There is very little research data on the perpetrators, as most cases go unreported. According to responses received by Yle, the perpetrators are a diverse group. They do, however, have a few common denominators.

The majority of perpetrators are men, even when the sexual harassment is directed at boys. Often the perpetrator himself is young, on the cusp of adulthood or just past it.

Some perpetrators may not even know the age of the person they are communicating with and do not realise they are committing a crime. Some approach younger children on purpose because the attraction is the victim’s young age.

Some seek to establish a trusting relationship with the child and then coerce the child to commit sexual acts. For example, some directly ask for explicit pictures or send nude pictures of themselves.

According to Asmundela, among these men are ordinary working-class fathers, but also people whose social contacts are limited to the internet.

"The scale is broad, but few believe that there is nothing wrong with what they’re doing. Often, they say that they have understood that it is wrong, but do not consider it too bad because the act has only taken place online," she says.

According to Vaaranen-Valkonen, the perpetrators are usually very good at talking to children. They may establish a friendly relationship with the child, for example, by helping them with their homework.

However, more information on the perpetrators would be needed to prevent the problem more effectively.

Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

The Protect Children Association is currently analysing an extensive survey about the dark web, to which 9,000 people have responded. The results are to be published in September.

"We have asked people who are in possession of material that constitutes child sexual abuse to explain their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Preliminary results show that there are many different reasons for the use of said material," Vaaranen-Valkonen says.

How can the problem be eradicated?

In addition to research data, more action is needed to combat and prevent online child sexual exploitation. This is the opinion of all those interviewed by Yle.

The responses that emerged are as follow:

Helping the perpetrators. There are currently several projects underway in Finland that aim to help people who are sexually interested in children before they act on their tendencies.

Asmundela hopes that these projects will find stable funding, as there is urgent need for the help.

"I know there is an abundance of participants for these projects. We have to acknowledge that there are people among us who have a sexual interest in children and they need to be provided with support before a crime occurs. That is the best prevention," she says.

Reporting incidents to the authorities. All cases brought to the attention of an adult should be reported as a criminal offence. It increases the risk of perpetrators being caught, and one single crime report is likely to help multiple children.

Adherence to age limits on social media. Most social media applications have set an age limit of 13 years for their users. Those who responded to Yle's survey consider it important to comply with the age limits. The responsibility for this lies with adults.

"Age limits are set by specialists and follow the child's socio-cognitive abilities to understand and assess risks. If an eight-year-old uses applications intended for people over the age of 13, there is a significant risk," says Vaaranen-Valkonen.

Early sexuality education. Almost all the organisations that responded to Yle's survey emphasised the need to start sex education much earlier than at present. Today, sex education begins in the fifth grade of elementary school, or at age 10-11.

"It is a significant problem that so little information is available for children under 12 years of age. Children are really in an unequal position when they have to depend on information they receive at home," says Johanna Virtanen, project manager at SOS Children's Village.

According to Saara Kokkonen, the planner of preventive online work at the Youth Exit Association, young people with inadequate sex education have an increased risk of experiencing sexual violence.

"Breaking taboos, talking about them and recognising them lowers the threshold for both experiencers and perpetrators to seek help," Kokkonen says.

Talking and listening to children. Both the police and child protective organisations stress that adults should discuss the use of social media with their children from the time a child starts using apps.

However, the conversation should not demonise the internet nor blame the child. The child is not responsible for the crime committed by an adult, although they often experience shame and guilt for what happened.

"Currently, the blame and humiliation felt by the victim encourages them to remain silent and the perpetrators to continue," says Talvitie.

Many organisations report that it is often difficult for children to talk about the sexual abuse they experience. The initiator of an active conversation should therefore be an adult. Studies show that directly asking about potential online abuse lowers a child’s threshold to report anything they may have experienced. It is also easier for an adult to notice if something questionable is taking place.

"Kids should be asked about their social media activities every single day, just like they’re asked about everything else in their lives: where they were, what they did and who they talked to," says Vaaranen-Valkonen.

She suggests teaching children to take screenshots of the things they encounter online – both nice and questionable – and showing the pictures to their parents at the end of the day.

Asmundela wishes adults would treat social media the way they treat traffic.

"Every autumn, before school starts, we walk the roads with future first-graders, show them the dangerous spots and support them on their journey. In social media, a child is often alone without guidance on how to act safely," she says.

If a child wants to share something they have seen or experienced online, the most important task is to stay calm and listen.

"At that point, there should be no pressure on the child to hurry. It is obviously very difficult for parents to stay calm if their own child reports that they have been sexually harassed or abused. However, the child's primary wish is to get help. The calmness of the adult is extremely important as it encourages the child to tell more," says Vaaranen-Valkonen.