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The rate of police-reported cybercrimes against children more than doubled over a seven-year period, a Statistics Canada report suggests, including an uptick in the first year of the pandemic.

The findings released Thursday show that the overall rate of online child sexual exploitation and abuse rose to 131 incidents per 100,000 children in 2020 from 50 incidents per 100,000 children in 2014.

Police reported a total of 10,739 incidents of online sexual offences against children over that period and 29,028 incidents of online child pornography. An incident is reported as an online sexual offence if police have identified the child involved, and online child pornography if they haven’t.

Rates of online child sexual exploitation and abuse increased during the first year of the COVID-19 crisis as part of an overall surge in cybercrime, Statscan said. Rates of crimes related to child pornography were roughly a third higher in 2020 compared with 2019, while the rate of child luring offences climbed by 22 per cent.

Wayne MacKay, a professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University, said these “staggering” numbers raise concerns about the shifting nature of sexual crimes against children.

While better policing of cybercrime may account for some of the increase over the study period, research suggests that online child sexual abuse often goes unreported, he said.

“The message that comes out of this data is pretty clear that we still have a significant problem with cybercrime and with sexual exploitation of children,” Prof. MacKay said. “That’s obviously not acceptable, especially when … you look at the devastating, often life-changing consequences of being a victim.”

The Statscan data underscores the gendered dimensions of cybercrimes against children, Prof. MacKay said.

Seventy-three per cent of victims were girls aged 12 to 17, the agency found, and 13 per cent were girls under 12. Meanwhile, the vast majority of those accused of online child sexual exploitation and abuse were boys and men.

For online child sexual offences, the accused were most likely to be identified as strangers and casual acquaintances. However, the relationship between the victim and the accused varied depending on the type of offence and those involved.

In nearly half of cases of non-consensual distribution of intimate images, the perpetrator was identified as an intimate partner or friend, the report said. More than two-thirds of the accused were boys aged 12 to 17, and 22 per cent were girls in the same age range.

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