An IWF snapshot study

In 2021 we saw a number of “self-generated” child sexual abuse reports involving much younger children than noted before. We decided to do a snapshot study to learn more about it.

“Self-generated” child sexual abuse content is created using webcams or smartphones and then shared online via a growing number of platforms. In some cases, children are groomed, deceived or extorted into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves. The images are created of children often in their bedrooms or another room in a home setting and no abuser is physically present but may be present virtually via the internet.

Over the period of one month between 11 October and 10 November, we asked analysts to record specific instances of self-generated content where at least one of the children was understood to be aged 3-6.


  • During this time 51 reports were found to include a child aged 3-6 which was deemed to contain self-generated content.
  • Averaged out over 23-days (workdays), this equates to 2 instances being found each day.
  • 35 of these reports were found to be either duplicate images or videos or to contain the same child/children on more than one occasion.
  • Several images/videos were found to have the same naming convention: Of the 51 images and videos found, 31 of these followed the same naming convention found across 3 different sites. 20 of these were within the duplicates mentioned above.

Sexes and age relevance

  • Three in every four instances (76% or 39 images/videos) showed girls; the remaining 12 instances showed boys.
  • Almost three in every five instances (57% or 29 images/videos) involved either a sibling or friend. Of these cases:
    • In 7 out of 10 (69% or 20 images/videos) the additional child was 7-10 years old.
    • In 3 out of 10 (28% or 8 images/videos) the additional child was 11-13.
    • In the 1 remaining instance, the children were within the same age range (3-6).
  • In just over 1 in 10 instances (12% or 6 images/videos) we saw a lone child nearer the lower end of 3-6 age group. Predominantly, in 6 in 10 instances (61% or 31 images/videos) the children were nearer the higher end of this age bracket.


In the UK, child sexual abuse is categorised according to the Sentencing Council’s Guidelines:

  • Category A: Images involving penetrative sexual activity; images involving sexual activity with an animal or sadism.
  • Category B: Images involving non-penetrative sexual activity.
  • Category C: Other indecent images not falling within categories A or B.

Overall severity of abuse of the self-generated content found to contain 3-6 year olds

Source: IWF Annual Report 2021

Category C was found to make up almost half (49%) of the content found overall.

Overall severity of abuse where additional friend/sibling is involved in 3-6 self-generated content

Source: IWF Annual Report 2021

Severity of abuse of self-generated content found containing 3-6 year olds solo

Source: IWF Annual Report 2021

Comparison of severity where children are solo verses the abuse that involves an older sibling.

When siblings or friends were involved, we saw a relatively even split across the severity categories of child sexual abuse. The majority of instances, however, involved Category A abuse accounting for nearly 2 in every 5 instances (38% or 11 images/videos). When children were alone, we most often saw Category C activity.

Unfortunately, predators seem to prey on young children and use the trust and formed bond between the victims to extend the abuse further, and in these cases, to reach much younger children. On the videos we heard the children encouraging each other or being the role model to follow.

Observations from the videos

It is sometimes wrongly assumed that children are aware that what is being asked of them is wrong or inappropriate. When referring to 3-6 year old children, they do not understand the inappropriateness of what they’re being asked to do, especially when led by a sibling or friend.

With each study we perform there is always an element of the data that stands out and below are some of the stark realities of what we see:

  • Some young children appear to be “performing” as if it’s a show. It’s evident this is not the first time this has happened to them and they are obviously trying to “please” an audience, unaware of the inappropriateness being asked of them. They have no concept of the abuse that is happening to them; we see them giggling, as if it’s just a little bit naughty with no apparent thought of what offenders will do with that content.
  • There were several videos and images that showed children intently looking into the camera, assumingly reading, or viewing something to then replicate it. Their faces were immersed and full of concentration, showing no emotion, demonstrating that these innocent children are being coerced into performing these acts with no understanding of their severity. In many of the videos, phones can be heard buzzing and the children then pause to read and carry out a different request, often not hesitating at what is being asked of them.
  • There was one set of two young children (boy and girl) along with other children in the room that couldn’t be seen providing encouragement. The two children were performing a sexual act and, given their apparent confidence, we can assume that they must have seen this before. They change sexual positions and the boy (younger of the two) quotes lines such as “do you like that baby” and “love you”.
  • There was one compilation of child sexual abuse content that showed at least two girls aged 3-6. In all, there were more than 30 different children within the compilation, which was put together like a slideshow. It was accompanied by upbeat music.
  • One video contained a young boy, aged four years old, whose sister was performing to a camera indicating what she was going to do to her brother. His face cannot be seen, but it was evident he was unaware what he was about to participate in. His reactions alone suggest he is young, saying he is scared she will bite him and after the act was carried out he was heard saying “eww” suggesting he didn’t like it.

It’s not just one video or one image

  • A higher number of images were found in comparison to videos. Most of the videos were around 2 minutes long and the videos had been cropped to immediately display sexual activity of the child, with little lead in.
  • We saw evidence that one instance of three videos initially uploaded together within a file was re-uploaded to a different cyberlocker within a short period of time, having been split, stored separately, and renamed in the process.
  • In another instance, we saw how one original video was cut into still images, which were then shared more widely on individual URLs. The girl in the video was wearing a recognisable t-shirt making her easy to spot across multiple instances.

It’s not just one video or one image

We hope that by understanding the crimes committed against children it will help our, and others’, knowledge of the problem and lead to new ways of tackling this criminality and protecting children.

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