Inappropriate images of children on social media were reported around 20,000 times last year alone, according to police figures.
The data has prompted a warning to parents to be wary of what photographs they posted of their children online.
Any personal details visible can be used for nefarious purposes, Detective Sergeant Jonathan Wylde says – including school uniforms, identifiable locations, or visible hobbies.
“People can utilise that information to groom children, to sextort, or blackmail individuals,” Wylde said.
“If those images are publicly available, you don’t know who is going to be viewing them.”
Since 2021, New Zealand Police have received intel from the US-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which has revealed the extent of the problem.
Police said the use of artificial intelligence in child abuse content is also a real threat that parents should be aware of when posting on social media.
“Those images could be obtained by someone who has an ulterior motive and uses software such as AI to manipulate it,” Wylde said.
“It could use a child’s face and that image could be overly sexualised in nature or compromising in some way.”
Police were urging parents to review their privacy settings on social media, to reduce the accessibility of images to the billions of users of online platforms globally.
Privacy law expert Nikki Chamberlain said current legislation in New Zealand was inadequate in protecting children’s privacy rights online.
“We need stricter regulation around the social media companies to monitor the content online and making sure it is taken down immediately,” Chamberlain said.
That could include having a third-party watchdog to send complaints to, or an independent regulator.
“If parents are not looking after the interests of the child, we need a third party to step in to talk to the parents and have recourse if needed, because children are vulnerable,” she said.
In the UK and Europe, laws known as “the right to be forgotten” existed, allowing children who come of age to request digital information about them online to be removed.
Chamberlain said New Zealand should aim to follow suit to ensure the protection of children.
Since last year, Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster has been investigating whether our laws were fit for purpose in protecting children’s privacy rights online.
It looked at videos of school fights published on social media, issues around CCTV in school bathrooms, and videos of children being used to promote health provider services.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner said an initial round of consultation was now completed and a report would be published soon.