Part of Sexual Violence Awareness Week 2021

Trigger warning: this blog post discusses different types child sexual abuse and exploitation that may be distressing for some readers. Please read with care.

As COVID-19 attacked the world, Canadian families found themselves at home facing the closures of schools and daycares and increased social distancing measures to contain the pandemic. While these measures were necessary, the outcome was more virtual classrooms, unmonitored internet access, and as a result, an increased risk to online child sexual exploitation. During this time, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s (C3P) Cybertip tipline for child abuse saw an 81% increase in report of online child exploitation.

An 81% increase.

Not only is this statistic horrifying, it confirms what many sexualized violence and child protection professionals feared since the beginning of 2020: our most vulnerable populations are being exploited by the opportunities the pandemic is providing to perpetrators.

What is online child sexual exploitation?

Online child sexual exploitation is one of the most disturbing public safety issues facing society today. It continues to harm past and present generations of children in Canada and abroad. Child sexual exploitation online includes:

  • Child sexual abuse material – Actual, but also fictitious, written depictions of child sexual abuse, audio, video, and images, also known as child pornography;
  • Self-generated materials and sexting – Youth-generated explicit images/videos on the Internet, which are often further distributed without consent;
  • Sextortion – Use of coercion and threats to extort child sexual exploitation images/videos from youth (either by other youth or adult offenders);
  • Grooming and luring – Use of applications and platforms to connect with children and youth for the purpose of sexually exploiting them;
  • Live child sexual abuse streaming – Viewing of child sexual abuse in real-time, often involves the offender directing the abuse; and
  • Made-to-order content – Ordering videos/images to suit offenders’ preferences.

Who is C3P and what are they doing?

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection is a national charity dedicated to reducing sexual abuse and exploitation of children, assisting in the location of missing children, and preventing child victimization through a number of programs, services, and resources for Canadians. Some of these initiatives include (the national tip-line for child abuse) and Project Arachnid, a web-crawling tool to identify child sexual exploitation material and remove it, breaking the cycle of abuse.

Project Arachnid crawls links on sites previously reported to that contained child sexual abuse material and detects where these images/videos are publicly available on the internet. If child sexual abuse material is detected, a notice is sent to the hosting provider requesting its removal. Project Arachnid processes thousands of images a second and is thus capable of detecting content at a pace that greatly exceeds that of traditional methods of identifying and addressing this harmful material.

Using information from and Project Arachnid, C3P has detected increased activity from the online child sexual offender community. Of particular concern to C3P is activity by the “capper” community. Cappers are individuals who attempt to capture nude or sexual audio and video via webcam of children they target on various livestreaming platforms or applications. There is also increased sharing of information between offenders, such as best practices and techniques to get in touch with children and youth during the COVID-19 crisis.

How prevalent is child sexual abuse anyway?

Pre-pandemic, a 2016 analysis of C3P’s reports highlighted the serious prevalence of child sexual abuse material on the internet and the need for more to be done to identify the children portrayed in the images and videos, stop offenders, and reduce the availability and continued distribution of this content. This analysis was based on the review of close to 152,000 reports and examined 43,762 unique images and videos classified by as child sexual abuse material.

The harsh reality is 78% of the images and videos analyzed by depict children under 12, with the majority (63%) of those being under 8 years of age. In the analyzed images, as the age of the children decreases, the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation acts become more intrusive.

What is the research showing us about the impacts of the pandemic?

While much research has yet to be released, early studies are finding that children are incredibly vulnerable to abuse within the home and online, and that reports of child sexual abuse are plummeting due to children being isolated at home (Tener et. al, 2020; Xue et. al, 2020).

Conclusions included a need for increased governmental and community efforts to develop a safety net for children and increase resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic (Tener et. al, 2020). In anticipation of the increased violence that children may experience by being stuck at home, countries around the world even reopened schools so children had a safe place to go despite the public heath risks of the virus (Roca et. al, 2020).

So, what is our government doing about this crisis?

In a public safety announcement on May 4, 2020, the Government of Canada acknowledged the severity and emergency of this public health crisis. They vowed to remain committed to protecting children and preventing online child sexual exploitation by continuing their work with national partners such as the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P).

Public Safety Canada leads the National Strategy for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation on the Internet, which was created in 2004. Efforts under this National Strategy can be categorized under four broad pillars:

  1. Prevention and Awareness: Increasing awareness of the risks of online CSE among children and youth, as well as parents, teachers, health professionals, and others; reducing stigma around reporting; and supporting initiatives that help prevent child sexual exploitation on the Internet.
  2. Pursuit, Disruption and Prosecution: Identifying, apprehending, and prosecuting offenders.
  3. Protection: Protecting victims from further abuse through victim identification, accelerated detection and removal of publicly available images, and providing support services for victims and survivors.
  4. Partnerships, Research and Strategic Support: Strategic policy development, research to advance knowledge of online CSE, support to National Strategy partners, and ongoing engagement with domestic and international stakeholders.

Additionally, the Government of Canada is working internationally with organizations such as the Five Country Ministerial partners, who recently launched the Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, a guide for industry on how to counter child sexual exploitation on their platforms.

All hope is not lost.

These initiatives, and the efforts of the people behind them, give us hope for the safety of children utilizing the world wide web. Highlighting the prevalence of this issue can feel uncomfortable, but every share, conversation, and post about online child sexual exploitation may keep a child safe.

One of the most important outcomes of Project Arachnid is the psychological relief offered to survivors of child sexual abuse material who have had no control over the distribution and ongoing sharing of their recorded sexual abuse. Every time their image or video is viewed survivors are re-victimized. By curbing the public availability of this content, Project Arachnid helps break the cycle of abuse for survivors, and address the very real fear someone they know may come across an image of their abuse on the internet.

C3P has added a dedicated support page to their website for families, educators, and child-serving organizations full of resources for keeping children safe online at all ages.

If you have information about the online sexual abuse or exploitation of a child, have come across child sexual abuse material, or are concerned that a child or youth is being victimized online, you can report to here. Your name and contact information is not required to make a report.


Canadian Centre for Child Protection, About Us.

Canadian Centre for Child Protection, Child Sexual Abuse Images on the Internet: A Analysis. April 13, 2021.

Canadian Centre for Child Protection, Project Arachnid.

Dafna Tener, Amitai Marmor, Carmit Katz, Abbie Newman, Jane F. Silovsky, Jennifer Shields, Erin Taylor. How does COVID-19 impact intrafamilial child sexual abuse? Comparison analysis of reports by practitioners in Israel and the US. 2020, 104779, ISSN 0145-2134,

Public Safety Canada, Child Sexual Exploitation on the Internet. March 10, 2021.

Public Safety Canada, Child Sexual Exploitation Online During COVID-19. May 4, 2020.

Roca E, Melgar P, Gairal-Casadó R, Pulido-Rodríguez MA. Schools That ‘Open Doors’ to Prevent Child Abuse in Confinement by COVID-19. Sustainability. 2020; 12(11):4685.

Xue J, Chen J, Chen C, Hu R, Zhu T. The Hidden Pandemic of Family Violence During COVID-19: Unsupervised Learning of Tweets. J Med Internet Res 2020;22(11):e24361. doi: 10.2196/24361.

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