Research into 12- to 17-year-olds adds to concerns that Covid has left them more vulnerable in their country

If the findings are scaled to the population, it could mean 2 million children were subjected to online sexual abuse in one year. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

One in five children aged between 12 and 17 were subjected to grave instances of online sexual abuse while using the internet in the Philippines in 2020, research suggests.

The study adds to concerns that the pandemic has heightened the vulnerability of children in the country, which was already considered a global centre of such abuse.

Researchers who surveyed 950 children found a fifth of those who used the internet had experienced online sexual abuse over the past year, such as being blackmailed or coerced with money to engage in sexual activities, or having intimate images shared without their consent. The survey was conducted between January and April 2021.

If the findings are scaled to the population, it could mean 2 million children were subjected to such abuse in one year, according to the study, which was funded by the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and produced by Unicef, Interpol and Ecpat International, a network of civil society organisations focused on tackling child sexual exploitation.

Marie Michelle Quezon, a child protection officer with Unicef, said the scale of the problem was already very big and at risk of worsening. “We will transition to [abuse being] endemic if we don’t act on it, because as we all know it is a crime that is facilitated by technology, and technology only continues to advance.”

Among children who experienced online sexual abuse on social media, Facebook or Facebook Messenger were by far the most common platforms where this occurred, accounting for more than 90% of cases. Children also cited TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Very few reported the abuse to authorities.

Children in the Philippines have faced some of the harshest Covid restrictions in the world and were officially banned from public spaces such as shopping malls and parks. Rules were eased last year but children are still slowly returning to in-person classes.

“Even before the pandemic there was already a lot of incidents of online sexual abuse and exploitation in the Philippines, and this was exacerbated,” said Quezon.

In some cases reported in the media, children have sold intimate images in order to pay for devices so they can access online learning at home, said Quezon. “Sometimes they just sell their photo for 150 pesos [about £2.20],” she added. Parents have also faced huge financial pressures due to the pandemic, increasing the risk that they may facilitate abuse in exchange for money, she said.

Abuse was most often committed by individuals not known to the child, according to the study.

Most of the online child sexual exploitation cases investigated by the authorities were initially reported by foreign law enforcement agencies and NGOs. However, this may reflect differences in how proactive countries are, rather than indicating that offenders are mostly foreign nationals, the study said.

Quezon said greater investment was needed in services designed to tackle such crimes within the Philippines, more training to ensure reported cases were handled sensitivelyas well as work to increase awareness.