There has been a 65% increase in all forms of online sexual exploitation in Belgium since the start of the coronavirus crisis, according to Child Focus policy advisor Niels Van Paemel.
Child Focus, which actively supports investigations into the disappearance, abduction, or sexual exploitation of children, set up a civil hotline for reporting child sexual abuse material and child pornography in 2002.
“In 2020, ChildFocus opened 465 cases, compared to 276 cases in 2019. That is gigantic,” Van Paemel told Radio 1, adding that one explanation “may be that young people were more online, without much control.”
An underage girl recently took her own life after allegedly being the victim of sexual abuse at a cemetery in Ghent, of which pictures were spread on social media.
The court will examine whether a link can be made between the suicide and the facts, which would lead to heavier penalties.
According to Van Paemel, the sharing of sexual abuse images online happens more often than expected.
“But I must point out that even a huge increase says little. The dark number (the amount of unreported or undiscovered cases) in these kinds of cases is incredibly high because victims remain silent for fear of secondary victimisation,” he added.
When it comes to intimate images that someone shares themselves and then they are distributed without approval, “we must always keep the original distributor and victim in mind”, said Van Paemel.
He explained that Child Focus is now working on making the police, the courts, and even teachers understand that, even in the case of self-made and shared images, they must not be judgmental towards the underage person.
“End-to-end encryption has removed a barrier for many perpetrators, as in the past you had to go to the dark web to distribute these kinds of images, today they feel safe getting away with it on WhatsApp,” he said.
Van Paemel added that Child Focus has contacts with many social media companies that can help to remove the images once they are online.