A First-of-its-kind Campaign to Combat Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

April 17, 2024

The sexual exploitation and abuse of children is illegal, vile, and, as a topic of polite conversation, largely taboo. But, these horrific crimes can’t be ignored. They need to be discussed in the halls of government, at boardroom tables, and at kitchen tables. Young people need to be attuned to online sexual risks, and adults need to understand the issues so they can assist young people in crisis. That’s why Snap is honored to be a founding supporter of “Know2Protect,” a first-of-its-kind public awareness campaign launched today by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

From the production and distribution of contraband imagery to the grooming of children for sexual purposes and financially motivated “sextortion,” Know2Protect will shine a light on a range of sexual harms impacting children and teens. The campaign will educate and empower young people, parents, trusted adults, and policymakers to help prevent and combat these crimes. 

Snap was an early collaborator with DHS and agrees there is a need for a singular, galvanizing message to reach this range of audiences across the country and around the world. In support, we’ve donated advertising space for Know2Protect to post educational material on Snapchat, helping to reach teens where they are, and we’ll feature the campaign on our platform and on our Privacy and Safety Hub.

In addition, we’re conducting new research with teens (aged 13-17) and young adults (aged 18-24) in the U.S. about the various dimensions of child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) online, which will help to further inform the campaign and our own efforts to keep fighting this appalling abuse across platforms and services. 

Research results

From March 28, 2024, until April 1, 2024, we polled 1,037 U.S.-based teens and young adults, asking about their exposure to and knowledge of various online sexual crimes against minors. Participants responded, referencing their experiences on a range of online platforms and services, not just Snapchat. Some initial key findings include:

  • Sexual-related online risks are endemic for many teens and young adults, with more than two-thirds (68%) reporting that they had shared intimate imagery online or experienced “grooming”1 or “catfishing”2 behaviors.

  • Fake personas are pervasive online and are a major driver of digital risk exposure. Among those who shared intimate imagery, or experienced grooming or catfishing behaviors, nine in 10 (90%) said the other person lied about their identity. ​

  • Sharing intimate imagery and catfishing are high-risk gateways to online “sextortion,”3 as nearly half of those who shared intimate imagery were threatened with sextortion. Males were more susceptible to being sextorted than females (51% vs. 42%), and financial sextortion – demanding money, gift cards, or something else of value from the target – was more common among males (34% vs. 9%). In such scenarios, females were more often asked for additional sexual imagery (57% vs. 37%). ​

  • Unfortunately, although probably not surprisingly, a noteworthy percentage of teens and young adults (41%) who experienced one of these three risks kept it to themselves. Just 37% reported grooming to the online platform, law enforcement, and / or a hotline.​ Intimate imagery was the only risk where a healthy – but still insufficient – percentage of those targeted (63%) reported the problem; more than half (56%) said they reported financial sextortion that occurred via catfishing.

These latest findings underscore Snap’s ongoing study of digital well-being, which last year included a deeper dive into online sextortion among teens and young adults. 

We plan to repeat the study later this year to help gauge the impact of the Know2Protect campaign on teens and young adults across the country.

Snap’s work to combat online sexual abuse 

In addition to raising awareness of these potential harms, we are committed to eradicating this content and behavior from our service. 

We are determined to make Snapchat a hostile environment for illegal activity and have a zero-tolerance policy for any content or action that involves sexual misconduct toward a minor. We quickly remove violating content, take action against offending accounts, and report them to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), irrespective of where in the world the content was found. We use advanced technology to proactively detect violative material, and we encourage members of the Snapchat community, as well as their friends and family members, who might not use the app, to report issues to us and to local law enforcement. Our community members perform a great service when they reach out, protecting others from potential harm. We also participate in NCMEC’s Take It Down initiative and encourage young people to learn more about it and, if needed, to participate in the program. (There’s an equivalent for adults, too, which Snap also joined last year, called StopNCII.)   

We engage with other experts across the globe, as well, because no one entity or organization alone can make a material impact on these issues. Snap represents all of industry on the international Policy Board of the WeProtect Global Alliance; we are members of INHOPE’s Advisory Council and the UK Internet Watch Foundation’s Funding Council; and, last year, we concluded a two-year term on the Executive Committee of the Technology Coalition’s Board of Directors. All of these organizations have the eradication of online CSEA at the heart of their missions.

We support legislative solutions like the Kids Online Safety Act, the REPORT Act, and the SHIELD Act in the U.S., and we assist law enforcement agencies in their investigations to bring abusers to justice. We also invest in educational resources both in-app and on our website and last year added four new short-form videos about various sexual risks.  

Supporting Know2Protect is an extension of the work Snap has engaged in for many years. We congratulate DHS on today’s launch and applaud its efforts to educate the public about the important role each of us plays in helping to stamp out these vile harms across the entire tech ecosystem.   

— Jacqueline Beauchere, Global Head of Platform Safety

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1 Online grooming for sexual purposes occurs when someone, typically an adult, befriends a minor for purposes of engaging in sexual exploitation, imagery production, or in-person contact.
2 Catfishing occurs when an offender pretends to be someone they are not to lure a target into sharing personal information or sexual imagery.
3 Online sextortion occurs when an abuser somehow acquires or claims to be in possession of intimate imagery of an individual and then threatens or seeks to blackmail the target by demanding money, gift cards, more sexual imagery, or other personal information in supposed exchange for not releasing the material to the young person’s family and friends via online channels.