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Predators can reach children on well-known apps like TikTok and Instagram, as well as gaming interfaces like Roblox and Discord and websites like Omegle, pictured here.

In dark web forums, sexual predators are increasingly discussing the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to exploit children online as they spend more time out of school and on the internet.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection is seeing an increase in talk among predators and a spike in activity on its tip line for reporting online sexual exploitation of children, said Signy Arnason, the centre’s associate executive director.

“There’s no question that you’re seeing an uptick – a significant uptick – in chatter related to taking advantage of COVID-19,” Ms. Arnason said. “It’s really like a heyday for offenders.”

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Over one weekend in mid-April, the centre fielded 80 priority reports to the tip line, up from about 15 on any busy weekend before the pandemic, she said. Still, reports to the tip line don’t capture the entire scope of the problem because many children don’t know that their images have been stored and shared, she added.

A few days later, UNICEF issued a strong warning about the heightened risk of online sexual exploitation during a lockdown. The organization is urging technology companies to improve the safety features of their platforms and asking governments to step up awareness initiatives. Reports of child sexual exploitation to tip lines across the world have increased an average of 30 per cent amid the pandemic, according to InHope, a global network of cyber tip lines, as first reported by NBC News.

Online sexual exploitation can refer to children who are abused in their homes and then have images of the abuse distributed online, as well as children who are sexually exploited through online interactions.

Predators who attempt to collect nude images or sexual videos of children on livestreaming platforms – “cappers,” they call themselves – share techniques and encouragement within communities on the dark web, according to the centre.

In a typical scenario, a capper would target a boy using a “bait” video – often showing a girl undressing – using specialized software to give the boy the impression that he is livestreaming with a female peer rather than an adult male.

The predator would then direct the boy to perform sexual acts, recording the livestream for distribution online. Some predators will extort children for money or additional sexual images by threatening to release pictures and videos they already have online or to family and friends.

“If you cant find a boy right now your catfish [bait] video either sucks or you have zero idea how to talk to teens,” commented one predator recently in a dark web forum captured by the centre. “Omegle has literally been bursting at the seams in the last 2 weeks with boys,” wrote another, referring to a popular website for anonymous chatting.

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Girls are more often targeted for sexual grooming, which can involve predators complimenting them and creating the illusion of a relationship, Ms. Arnason said.

A message for all children is that they should never appear nude on webcams or livestreams, she said.

Predators can reach children on well-known apps such as TikTok and Instagram, as well as gaming interfaces such as Roblox and Discord; websites such as Omegle; and apps such as Cake and Sarahah, which have been the focus of safety alerts from the centre’s tip line, Cybertip.ca.

Sergeant Arnold Guerin, who works in the technology section of the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre, said his team is also tracking a rise in conversation among predators, who were “gleeful and delighted” about children having more screen time, often unsupervised.

He emphasized the importance of parents having conversations with their children about the internet and said that focusing on whether certain platforms are worse than others isn’t particularly helpful.

“What is more helpful advice is to be really involved in your child’s online community,” Sgt. Guerin said. “It’s okay to go to your kids and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know anything about Snapchat. Can you tell me what a private story is?'" (They can only be viewed by people the Snapchat user has selected.)

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Children should not accept social media contacts and friend requests from strangers, Sgt. Guerin said, acknowledging that this is difficult for a lot of kids who want more likes on their content.

Staff Sergeant Sharon Hanlon, manager of the Ontario Provincial Police’s Child Sexual Exploitation Unit, said a common issue is children doing stunts to get more likes, such as momentarily dropping their pants, not realizing how their images could later be used. (A spokeswoman for the Toronto Police Service, Meaghan Gray, said the force’s child exploitation unit has noticed an increase in children voluntarily posting images that could be used by an adult for exploitative purposes.)

Staff Sgt. Hanlon recommended that families download a free resource called Understanding Child Sexual Abuse, which was created by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. “An informed public is the best defence against the sexual exploitation of children,” she added.

In 2016, the centre launched Project Arachnid, a platform that automatically searches, or “crawls,” links reported to the centre’s tip line and sends notices to technology companies to remove identified child sexual abuse material. Last year, the centre received about 35,000 reports to its tip line and sent more than 1.3 million removal notifications to electronic service providers.

In early March, five countries, including the United States and Canada, released a set of 11 voluntary principles for technology companies to counter online child sexual exploitation and abuse. They include calling on companies to prevent child sexual abuse material from being made available on their platforms, identify exploitation facilitated by livestreaming and introduce stronger safety mechanisms.

Though parents and guardians have an important role to play in prevention, Ms. Arnason said the notion that they can know everything their kids are doing online is “ludicrous.”

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“It allows industry to get off the hook for the fact that they have not put in place the measures that are needed,” she said.

Online sexual exploitation of children can be reported to Cybertip.ca, Canada’s national tip line. Information about a child who is in immediate danger should be reported to 911.

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