Police criticise social media giants for lack of action over child sex abuse

The world's social media giants are being called out by the New Zealand agencies tasked with saving Kiwi kids from online sex abusers.

Police have told Newshub thousands of children are at risk, and often parents have no idea what's going on.

Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, TikTok - you name the social media site, and paedophiles are on it.

Children now as young as seven are the victims. And it's not just abusers based overseas exploiting them, it's Kiwis too.

The demand for child sex imagery is shocking, with 50,000 clicks every day from New Zealanders trying to access this illegal material.

But police and government agencies are facing a roadblock as they try to save kids from abuse - the social media sites just aren't doing enough to help.

Last year, international group INHOPE, an organisation which assists in finding and removing sexually explicit child abuse material, reported that 1358 explicit images and videos of children were shared from our shores to paedophiles around the world.

Internationally, 45 million images and videos of children being sexually abused were found online by authorities worldwide last year.

Det Snr Sgt John Michael, who leads the police's covert online team, says he's still shocked by the material surfacing on the internet.

"It's worse than you could imagine. I won't even try and describe it to the public because I don't want them to think about what it could be," he says.

"We still see things that we can't believe a human being would do to another human being."

For authorities, the problem is three-fold. There's those who access these illegal images. There's those who make them, by convincing children to send explicit pictures of themselves over the internet, and then there's those go further by meeting children in person to abuse them.

Michael told Newshub that paedophiles' new playground is the very same place where kids hang out, social media.

"Every social media platform, network, gaming site, that allows interaction between people, there are child sex offenders there, no doubt."

Despite the seriousness of what's emerging online, he says social media companies are often slow, and not proactive enough when it comes to releasing data and chat-logs to authorities which may help them find offenders and rescue victims.

"Sometimes we get very limited information, and we don't get the full picture. When we go back to them, we're forced to go through that very long, drawn-out process to get further information," he says.

Michael says he has even talked to one social media company about setting up a verification process, which he believed would make the platform less attractive to offenders, to no avail.

"I just got 'no, we're not doing that'," he says.

The police's covert online team works closely alongside Customs and the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA). It too also runs into roadblocks from social media companies.

"They're not providing enough information. It creates a barrier for law enforcement," says Jolene Armadoros from the DIA digital safety team.

Armadoros says it's imperative more of these companies act faster to help children.

"Every offender we catch prevents more victims, and every victim we identify and remove from harm, whether they've been dealt with by new mechanisms with other countries is important."

However the DIA also says helping victims requires "working constructively" with the social media giants.

"It's about identifying the offenders and reducing numbers of victims and that involves working constructively with the social media companies, rather than calling them out," a spokesperson told Newshub.

"DIA and other agencies are committed to working collaboratively on specific initiatives that make this material more difficult to access and in the process reduce the harm to victims and society."

Snapchat, TikTok, Kik and Google all sent Newshub lengthy statements about their efforts to address sex abuse material, but none of them directly addressed the criticism from New Zealand authorities. Tumblr didn't bother to reply. It's understood Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp all have good relationships with law enforcement here.

If you are concerned about your child's activity online, you can call Netsafe on 0508 Netsafe, or text 'Netsafe' to 4282. If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call 111. 

If you have witnessed or experienced sexual harassment or assault and would like to speak to someone, you can call the HELP support service.