Mar 11, 2024 - News

Tips of suspected internet crimes against kids skyrocket

Illustration of a computer mouse surrounded by traffic cones

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tips of suspected internet crimes against children in Washington went up 250% between 2019 and 2023, according to new data from the state's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Why it matters: One in three minors have an unwelcome sexual experience online before they turn 18, according to a ParentsTogether Action report.

By the numbers: In Washington, the number of child enticement cases increased 76% from 2022 to 2023, per the state task force.

  • Cybertips are up from an average of 200 a month in 2020 to 1,156 a month in 2023.
  • There are also "sextortion" cases, cases from undercover detectives who pose as children in chat rooms and reports from other investigative agencies such as Child Protective Services, Laura Harmon, a prosecuting attorney with the task force, told Axios.
  • Case referrals from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children have more than doubled since 2019, per the task force.

Zoom out: Worldwide, cybertips grew 188% from 2019 to 2022, the latest publicly available data, per Harmon.

What they're saying: Harmon said children depicted in online photos suffer lifelong trauma that can lead to substance abuse and other self-harming behaviors.

  • The images can lead to escalation by offenders and more offenses, she said.

Of note: Harmon says that while they believe numbers will continue to rise, widespread encryption on media platforms could impact reporting.

Plus: The use of AI, which makes it easy to generate realistic fake porn, is complicating the investigations and prosecutions of these crimes, said King County Prosecuting Attorney Leesa Manion.

  • Taylor Swift's recent experience with fake nudes shows this harassment could happen to anyone, wrote Axios' April Rubin.
  • In the absence of federal legal protection — and a smattering of state laws on the issue — those affected can be left to deal with lasting consequences on their mental health and reputations with little recourse.
Data: Washington Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force; Chart: Axios Visuals

The big picture: Yaron Litwin, safety expert at digital filtering app Canopy, told Axios federal protections are needed to protect children's safety online.

  • Social media apps need to have privacy and safety settings enabled by default, as well as controls that allow adults to manage children's accounts, Litwin said.

What to do: It is never too early to start talking with children about internet safety since kids are on computers at younger and younger ages, said Harmon.

What's next: Washington's Legislature passed a measure last month making it a crime to distribute "deepfake" pornographic images, with stiffer penalties for people who share fake porn that appears to depict specific minors.

  • The bill now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee's desk.

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