Children as young as three are being coerced into live-streaming their own sexual abuse from their homes, a study has found.
Researchers discovered more than 2,000 videos of live-streamed child abuse on the internet over a three-month period – the vast majority (96%) showing a youngster on their own, often in their bedroom or bathroom.
This indicated children were being “directed” to stream their own abuse over webcams, tablets and mobile phones, experts said.
The study, by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), also found 98% of the images were of children under the age of 13, 28% were under 10 and the youngest victim was just three.
Almost all the victims – 96% – were girls, while 100% of the images had been redistributed on other websites.
Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said: “The backgrounds in the videos we studied mostly showed that the youngsters were in very ordinary home settings.
“Critically, no adult appeared to be present in the images we saw. Therefore, it’s our belief that these children were being directed to abuse themselves and live-stream the sexual abuse.
“This form of grooming is complicated and only possible because of the anonymity the internet offers. An offender may be, for example, a 40-year-old man. But by abusing a legitimate internet site to create a false profile, he could appear online as a 12-year-old schoolgirl.”
According to the study, grooming often took the form of a game, where children were coerced into performing sexual acts, such as “sexual posing”, once they received a certain number of likes online.
“As the ‘game’ proceeds, the child may agree to other acts – the higher the number of likes, the greater the victimisation,” the report adds.
One example cited in the report involved a 12-year-old girl who referred to having 50 viewers on her broadcast stream.
After repeatedly exposing herself to the webcam, she stated she would stop the broadcast if people did not start commenting or liking the stream as there would be “no point” in her continuing.
Author of the paper Sarah Smith said the research highlighted a “worrying new trend”.
“Permanent captures from live-streams showing children being groomed or encouraged to perform sexual acts now represent most of the new images and videos IWF sees,” she said.
“This abuse can happen to any child who has access to live-streaming technology. All parents and carers should remain vigilant.”