Ending twin pandemics: COVID-19 and the sexual exploitation of children


The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an added level of horror for families trying to protect their children from Internet-related harms and parents, rightly so, are looking to government leaders for help.   

Prior to COVID-19, the online sexual exploitation of children was already at pandemic proportions. The reality we now live in has vastly increased online activity for kids due to virtual learning and an increased time indoors. Parents are increasingly concerned about the dangers associated with the use of digital tools and social media, where savvy sexual predators, traffickers and pornographers are aggressively preying on vulnerable children. 

Reports of online sexual exploitation of children have soared since COVID first blindsided Americans earlier this year. In 2018, over half of U.S. sex trafficking involved children with 55% of minors meeting their traffickers through a website or mobile app. The month following sheltering in place orders, reports of sex trafficking crisis cases handled by the Trafficking Hotline increased by more than 40% compared to the prior month.  

In 2019, 16.9 million reports containing 69 million images and videos of suspected child sex abuse materials were reported via the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline, depicting victims as young as infant and toddler age. In April 2020, one month after the lockdown, the Tipline reported a four-fold increase in reports over April 2019. 

By July of this year, Google Trends reported an 80% increase in parents searching for online help in dealing with cyberbullying, demonstrating that one of COVID’s least discussed ramifications is the ambush on the innocence of American’s children in the digital world. Today’s mainstream multibillion-dollar online pornography industry depicts themes of teen rape, incest, torture, group sex, strangulation and eroticized racism. Alarmingly, kids under 10 years old comprise 22% of the online porn use of minor-aged consumers.

It’s no coincidence that the influx of illegal pornography content snowballed after the Department of Justice Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, set up originally to combat adult obscenity, was shut down during the Obama administration. As a result, the ongoing failure to enforce the federal obscenity laws continues to fuel the tsunami of child pornography and sex trafficking crime that is overwhelming DOJ.

In the last U.S. presidential election cycle, candidates Donald J. Trump signed and Hillary Clinton supported via letter, Enough Is Enough’s bipartisan Children’s Internet Safety Presidential Pledge. This was an historic first.

In recent weeks, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has been approached but has not yet signed the pledge. He has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor pledging, “if elected president, to uphold the rule of law to defend the innocence and dignity of America’s children,” by aggressively enforcing existing federal child pornography, obscenity and sex trafficking laws and advancing public policies designed to prevent the sexual exploitation of children online. 

Partly inspired by the pledge, the current administration has made discernible progress in tackling the global scourge of human trafficking by approving the largest DOJ grant package in history. Additionally, the president signed nine pieces of bipartisan legislation to combat trafficking, both domestically and internationally, and signed an executive order which included a $42 million budget increase to expand support for trafficking victims and to create a new White House staff position to focus solely on domestic trafficking and child sexual exploitation.

These successes must be built upon and expanded in order to turn back the pandemic of Internet crimes against children. Protecting our nation’s youth from online harms is a unifying issue that families and parents of all races and religions agree. Parents can’t possibly shoulder the entire burden of protecting children from virtual criminals seeking to destroy their innocence.

Hopefully soon, the devastating impact of COVID-19 will end, but the scourge of the sexual exploitation of children will continue to escalate unless the next president of the United States keeps the protection, safety and dignity of children online a top priority. It is essential for the sake of the children to continue the momentum we have gained against online criminals that have no second gear.

• Donna Rice Hughes, Enough Is Enough®’s CEO and president, has been an Internet safety pioneer, author, commentator and speaker since 1994. Under her leadership, EIE developed the bipartisan Children’s Internet Safety Presidential Pledge. EIE is a non-partisan, non-profit organization and does not endorse or oppose candidates for office. www.enough.org.  

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