The Online Exploitation of Children

Online child sexual exploitation (OCSE) is a growing problem facing modern lawmakers.

The internet’s expanding reach helps offenders find and exploit victims, challenging international minor protection efforts.

OCSE cases, such as online child pornography, can be considered forms of online child sex trafficking as a minor is used with the ultimate goal of exploiting the child, and understanding both is critical to creating effective countermeasures.

Online exploitation challenges anti-international human trafficking and child pornography efforts. 

This article explores online child sex trafficking and child pornography and how international cooperation can help to combat them.

What is Child Sexual Exploitation?

There is no internationally agreed-upon definition of exploitation. [1]

People use the term in a shared, understood context, often for advocacy purposes.

The main international human trafficking agreement, the Palermo Protocol, lacks a definition of exploitation, instead resorting to exploitation examples.

This lack of clarity enables unnecessary legal confusion that potentially benefits bad actors.

UNICEF explains that sexual exploitation of children occurs when a second party benefits from sexual activity involving a child. [2]

An example is the seller of a child exploited in prostitution who gains money from the use of the child by individuals purchasing the services of that exploited child. 

What is Online Child Pornography?

Online child pornography is a sufficiently sexually suggestive visual depiction of an actual minor on the internet. [3]

A more widely accepted term for child pornography is child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

The internet facilitates CSAM in the following ways:

● By providing producers a chance to create CSAM through coercing children into making sexually suggestive images, videos, or live streams

● By providing distributors the means to disseminate CSAM through online channels like websites and forums.

● By providing consumers the tools to consume CSAM without needing to download images onto personal devices.

What is Online Child Sex Trafficking?

Online child sex trafficking involves using the internet to recruit, harbor, transport, or receive a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

This purpose does not require the perpetrator to be with the victim physically; an exploiter who entice or grooms a minor into producing self-made CSAM is a trafficker.

Online platforms like social media help traffickers find and engage with potential victims.

Internet segmentation has created many platforms or sections of websites that primarily host minors.

Guardians may feel their children are safer in youth-focused spaces, but with features like end-to-end encryption, these spaces may only serve as an attractor to exploiters.

Relationship Between OCSE Cases

All forms of online child sex trafficking involve the intent to sexually exploit children.

Any CSAM that spreads to an audience beyond the producers is also exploitative since distributors act as second-party sellers, not first-party consumers.

Lawmakers must distinguish between these OCSE cases for prosecution flexibility.

Regardless of overlap, specific trafficking, exploitation, and CSAM definitions enable unambiguous charges across numerous misdeeds.

International Response

OCSE offenders and victims are international, requiring a coordinated global response.

National legislation is insufficient since perpetrators may use weak laws in another country to escape justice and continue exploitation.

No standalone international legal instruments combat OCSE.

While the Palermo Protocol tackles trafficking, drafters wrote it in 2000 when internet crime was in its infancy. [4]

These steps would help protect children across the globe:

● International lawmakers must identify all forms of OCSE by researching the realities of digital communication.

● These lawmakers should create legislation that bans OCSE and assigns digital platforms a role in detecting and reporting OCSE on their sites.

● The international community must adopt this legal framework in a way that holds lapsing state parties legally accountable.

National Response

Governments must create clear national legislation tailored to address the unique threats facing their children.

For some countries, this will involve heavy coordination with digital platforms, encouraging a human rights approach to user agreements.

National anti-OCSE capabilities must be sufficient to address local issues and coordinate internationally.

Many countries need significant capacity building to achieve this goal.

Similarly, educational institutions need strengthening to teach children how to recognize and respond to online dangers.

What is Human Trafficking Front Doing?

Human Trafficking Front advocates for addressing OCSE challenges with stronger legal frameworks, technological safeguards, and teaching initiatives.

We exist to spread public awareness to relevant authority figures in legal, educational, and household positions.

By supporting our cause, you help educate a new generation of child overseers who can identify dangers online and react appropriately.

Visit our site today to see our donation options. 

Key Takeaways

1. Online child exploitation involves a second party benefiting from a sexual encounter involving a minor.

2. Online child pornography involves sufficiently sexually suggestive depictions of actual minors. 

3. Online child sex trafficking involves the recruitment or transfer of minors for the purpose of sexual exploitation. 

4. OCSE categories can overlap, but lawmakers must create legal distinctions for prosecutorial benefit. 

5. International coordination must include a legally binding agreement focused on modern OCSE.

6. Nations must pursue increased education and OCSE fighting capacity.

Act Now. For more tools and information, check out our Resources page.  

Additional Details

This best practices prevention guide and publication is part of the Human Trafficking Front's program: Putting an End to the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children: Preventing Victimization and Strengthening Child Protection Systems.

Recommended Citation

Human Trafficking Front. (2023, December 26). The Online Exploitation of Children


[1] Global Migration Group. Exploitation and Abuse of International Migrants, Particularly Those in an Irregular Situation: A Human Rights Approach - Thematic Paper. 2013.

[2] Lastada International. Semantics or Substance (Subgroup Sexual Exploitation).

[3] U.S. Department of Justice. Citizen's Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Child Pornography. 

[4] Uitts, Beatriz Susana. Sex Trafficking of Children Online: Modern Slavery in Cyberspace. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022.

Human Trafficking Front

Dr. Beatriz Susana Uitts is a human rights specialist, Internet child safety advocate, and founder of Human Trafficking Front, a research and advocacy organization for the prevention of human trafficking. Dr. Uitts holds a J.S.D. and LL.M. in Intercultural Human Rights from St. Thomas University College of Law in Miami Gardens, FL, and is the author of the book Sex Trafficking of Children Online: Modern Slavery in Cyberspace regarding the growing problem of online child sexual exploitation. In this book, she proposes solutions to prevent its spread and promote a safer Internet for children and adolescents worldwide.