Live Streaming and Virtual Child Sex Trafficking

Online child sexual exploitation has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Minors access digital devices, the internet, and social media platforms at much younger ages than in the past, and devices and platforms are expanding the capacity for image creation and sharing. Further, current technology allows offenders to purchase livestreamed child sexual abuse from “sellers” or facilitators in foreign countries. Such conduct is sometimes referred to as “cybersex trafficking,” “livestreaming of child sexual abuse” or, as here, “virtual child sex trafficking.” The latter terminology more appropriately reflects the commercial element in these online exchanges, which are done for a financial benefit.

Livestreaming Child Sexual Exploitation (LCSE)

Livestreaming child sexual exploitation (LCSE) occurs when an offender compels a child victim to engage in sexually explicit conduct during a broadcast, in real time, to one or more viewers. There are generally three types of LCSE: child “self-generated,” offender-streaming, and virtual child sex trafficking.

  • Child “Self-Generated”: This type of LCSE occurs when an offender coerces, tricks, or otherwise compels children to engage in sexually explicit conduct on a livestream, typically from the child’s bedrooms or a bathroom. In some cases, this activity occurs under the pretext of the offender and victim being in a romantic relationship.
  • Offender-streaming: Offender-streaming LCSE occurs when an offender sexually abuses a child in person while livestreaming the abuse to viewers. The offender is usually someone who knows, and has easy access to, the victim, such as a family member or a family friend. The viewers may not know each other in real life. They often participate in the activity by requesting that specific sex acts be committed.
  • Virtual Child Sex Trafficking: In this form of LCSE, offenders pay to watch while another offender sexually abuses a child in person or offenders pay a victim directly to create “selfgenerated” CSAM. Because of the interactive nature of livestreaming platforms, offenders can request specific sexual abuse acts for an additional cost. Payment is usually made digitally. This offense often involves offenders in the United States and facilitators and children in foreign countries. Children may be transported from rural areas of that foreign country to urban settings in furtherance of this crime.

The use of livestreaming on social media has become extremely popular among children and adolescents. Livestreaming allows a user to produce real-time video that is broadcast over an online social media platform, whether viewed publicly or by a restricted audience. As of 2018, 42% of the population in the U.S. was livestreaming online content, up from 25% the prior year.5 It is reasonably anticipated that this number will rise in the post-pandemic era, particularly among children who were called on to use livestreaming technology daily as part of remote learning., Periscope, and Omegle are among the most popular platforms for livestreaming, along with livestreaming capabilities on mainstream platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitch. Most platforms have a chat feature where users can interact with the viewers of their content. No special equipment is required, as livestreaming can be done easily with any internet-capable device, including smart phones, which are now ubiquitous, and new platforms are constantly emerging.6 As livestreaming platforms have proliferated, offenders have increasingly engaged in LCSE to coerce a child’s self-generated content and stream in-person abuse to others. Some people perceive child self-generated LCSE as less harmful than in-person abuse (also referred to as hands-on abuse) to victims because it occurs remotely, but it is important to recognize all forms of LCSE can leave profound and lasting negative impacts on a child. The trauma caused by LCSE and other forms of online child exploitation is compounded by the victim’s knowledge that documentation of their abuse will live on the internet in perpetuity. It’s critical that victims of online child sexual abuse receive robust, ongoing victim services to aid in their healing.

Virtual Child Sex Trafficking

Like other kinds of human trafficking, virtual child sex trafficking may involve a facilitator and a buyer, both of whom exploit the child. This differs from other types of child exploitation in which a child is directly groomed or enticed into the abuse by one offender. Because of the financial aspects inherent in this crime some prosecutors charge this conduct as child sex trafficking under 18 U.S.C. § 1591.

Much of this kind of exploitation begins when the victims are infants or toddlers and can continue over many years. Offenders who purchase access to the content may participate in the abuse by requesting what they want to see in advance or directing the abuse as it occurs. Offenders may not record the livestream, but if they do, memorialization and distribution of new CSAM exacerbates the harm and trauma to the child.


Two primary challenges exist related to the reporting of livestreaming and virtual child sex trafficking. The first is detecting LCSE, because livestreamed content is often unmonitored by internet service providers.17 The use of children is frequently cloaked or embedded within internet sites that offer virtual livestreamed adult sex. Thus, looking at transactional information or even the initial advertisement webpage does not reveal that children are involved. Unlike traditional CSAM investigations that involve images, many instances of LCSE and virtual child sex trafficking go undetected by internet platforms and other online providers, even after the event, because the abuse is livestreamed and there is typically no captured content. Even if providers or other users are aware and want to report the abuse to law enforcement, the lack of preserved digital evidence hinders or prevents investigations, including victim identification. Second, electronic communication service providers and other online platforms where this kind of exploitation occurs are often not statutorily required to report these crimes, or the information they are required to provide is insufficient to assist investigators in locating and identifying offenders and victims. There is broad disparity across platforms in what kinds of information providers are willing or able to supply. There are also vast differences in technical infrastructure, staffing, and policies among platforms like Google or Yahoo and less widely used applications such as LiveMe. As a result, no one methodology can be applied consistently when following up on investigating an individual report from an online provider. Thus, investigators must often pursue new or unique methods of investigation, tailored to the individual platform referenced in the report.


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