Online-facilitated child sexual abuse has become a growing threat in recent years with data collated by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) showing there has been an increase globally of the distribution of online material of 155% between 2019 and 2020.

The final report from IICSA underlined that child protection should be made a national priority. Survivors of abuse shared that when documentation of their abuse is shared online, it affects them differently than the abuse originally suffered (including fear of being recognised by someone and that the images are permanent and constantly shared so this results in the children being re-victimised each time the documentation is shared).

One way to tackle online abuse is by research. Research into patterns and insight into the behaviour of people who intend to abuse children can help with the development of tools to support police investigations. It can also help design interventions for people who share and consume this abuse material.

The ReDirection Project by the Helsinki-based non-profit, Suojellaan Lapsia ry. (meaning “Protect Children” and has the purpose of ensuring no child is subjected to sexual harassment, grooming or any kind of sexual violence whether online of offline), obtained the anonymous views of over 8,000 people on the dark web who accessed abuse images. This survey found that:

  • Only 13% had sought help, but that 50% wanted to stop and 62% had tried to stop but failed.
  • Many respondents (70%) reported being exposed to child sexual abuse material when they were children themselves.
  • Many respondents were at high risk of directly contacting children (44% said viewing this material made them think about seeking direct contact with children and 37% said they had sought direct contact with children after viewing material)
  • There is also an alarming increase in the prevalence of livestreamed child sexual abuse material which is being captured and shared in real time by the offender.

The Project concluded that further research and more in-depth analysis is needed to gain deeper insight into the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour of users of child sexual abuse material to combat the issue and protect children from heinous crimes.

The survey results revealed several issues which may be invaluable in prevention work. For example, responses indicate that not all users of this material are paedophiles (sexual preference for pre-pubescent children) or hebephiles (sexual preference for children in early adolescence), and thus do not necessarily experience sexual attraction towards children. While sexual attraction to children and the associated cognitive distortions are certainly prominent reasons for use of this type of material, qualitative analysis of the open-ended answers indicates various additional motivators. Some clear patterns include pornography escalation, sexual abuse in own childhood, and other trauma. 

The ReDirection Project concluded that comprehensive, multi-pronged prevention strategies are needed to better protect children from all forms of sexual violence. Effective prevention means cannot be limited to a single group but must focus on all children and all potential offenders.

Another research project that was funded by End Violence Against Children (EVAC) was called “Disrupting Harm” that generated evidence to understand the scope and nature of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

The Safe Online Director at EVAC stated:

Safe Online is proud to be part of this ground-breaking research project. Disrupting Harm has generated unique insights and actionable data providing a detailed, data-driven pathway for government and other stakeholders to strengthen prevention and response to online sexual abuse. DH’s appeal is also in the fact that it has created a blueprint approach and methodology for related areas beyond online CSEA [Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse].”

Disrupting Harm data estimates that millions of children were subjected to online child sexual exploitation and abuse across the 13 DH countries in 2020 alone so any insight provided from research is a great starting point to reducing and hopefully preventing online abuse.