Child Sexual Abuse: Shining a Light on a Growing Online Threat

Worrying trend: the last decade has witnessed the proliferation of technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation and abuse. Image: doidam10 / Adobe Stock

This is the sixth in a series of articles analysing the top 10 serious and organised crime threats to the UK and how they have evolved over a decade. This article traces the journey of and the response to child sexual abuse – a threat that has grown exponentially over the last 10 years.

Child sexual abuse represents one of the most serious crimes against children. The last 10 years have stood out above all for the proliferation of technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation and abuse witnessed. This means that offenders are more easily able to connect with each other online and share child sexual abuse material in the form of images and videos – often at an astonishing rate. This, in turn, increases demand for such content among new users and increases the rate of abuse of children.

Child sexual abuse is harmful not only to children and young people but also to wider society. There is a strong and growing body of evidence showing that child sexual abuse is prevalent in every society where it is investigated. And while prevalence may differ from country to country, the negative impact on children and young people, continuing into later adulthood, is consistent across cultures.

A wealth of evidence produced in the last 10 years shows the links to negative mental health, physical health (including cancers, chronic disease and even early death), high-risk behaviours, subsequent violence experienced as both a perpetrator and victim (including domestic abuse and community violence), negative educational outcomes, loss of employment and under-employment. The economic and social cost of contact child sexual abuse in England and Wales for victims was estimated to be £10.1 billion in the year to 31 March 2019.

How large is the scale of the problem and how has this changed over the last 10 years? The last UK population-based prevalence study of child abuse and neglect was conducted by the NSPCC over a decade ago in 2009. It found that one in four young adults reported experiencing sexual abuse as children. It also found that one in 10 adolescents (aged 11–17) reported experiencing child sexual abuse in the past year.

The number of industry reports of child sexual abuse data in the UK has grown exponentially in the last decade from 1,591 reports in 2009 to 12,303 reports in 2014, to 113,948 in 2018. The figure stood at 97,727 in 2021, with reports subsequently tripling in number in 2022 to 316,900. It should be noted, however, that this data represents US-based electronic service provider detection of child sexual abuse images and videos and does not represent the scale of how frequently online child sexual abuse may be happening across the UK.

Increased referrals are also reflected in other UK statistics, including similar increases in police recorded abuse of children through sexual exploitation in England and Wales. In 2013, 176 children were recorded by the police as victims of sexual exploitation, increasing to 1,233 children in 2022.

This growth of technology-facilitated child sexual abuse also points to new and emerging threats. This includes a rapid acceleration in online sexual extortion of children. For example, in 2022/23, there were 844 instances within Childline counselling sessions where a child discussed blackmail or threats to expose or share sexual images. According to the NSPCC, this is a 61% increase from the previous year.

Known child sexual abuse material online also continues to proliferate, alongside the growth of newer tech environments such as extended reality, where the potential harms to children may continue to expand moving forward.

Tech-Savvy Offenders and Privacy by Design

What do we know about the perpetrators of child sexual abuse – today and in the past? With the growth in online offending, the threat landscape now includes many more consumers of child sexual abuse material, which both drives the sexual abuse of children and has the potential to increase the number of perpetrators that move from online to contact offending.

Concerningly, the majority of online content-sharing service companies do not publish transparency metrics on child sexual abuse

We are also learning that many offenders are tech savvy and would do more if they thought they could get away with it. Based on offender data, the National Crime Agency’s National Strategic Assessment 2023 estimates there are between 680,000 and 830,000 UK-based adult offenders who pose varying degrees of risk to children, equivalent to 1.3% to 1.6% of the UK adult population. However, a recent representative sample of men in the UK found that nearly six times that number of men (7% of a representative sample of 1,473 UK men) self-report perpetrating at least one online sexual behaviour against children. This includes knowingly and deliberately viewing child sexual abuse material or sexually explicit videos and images of children under 18, paying for this content, flirting or having sexual conversations online with children and/or engaging in sexually explicit webcam interactions with children under 18.

The same research found that those who report already engaging in harmful online behaviours against children are two to three times more likely to also report that they would have sexual contact with pre-pubescent children if they thought no one would find out. UK men who reported already having committed sexual offences against children were also twice as likely to use privacy software for their online activities compared to men who did not report any online sexual offending against children.

We also know that many tech companies are increasingly turning off the lights to avoid being held responsible for safety on their platforms through privacy by design – a methodology for proactively embedding privacy into their technology, practices and infrastructures. Concerningly, the majority of online content-sharing service companies do not publish transparency metrics on child sexual abuse. Of those that do, a recent study by Childlight found that only three companies provide any time-related metrics, which are incredibly important for understanding potential reach prior to takedown and the speed at which content is taken down.

A final notable trend in recent years has been the growth of harmful rhetoric that sexual interest in children may constitute a sexual orientation, that AI-generated content and childlike sexual abuse dolls may be ‘therapeutic’ rather than harmful, and that child sexual abuse amounts to little more than a moral panic. These views do not reflect those of the general public or those working with survivors and victims of abuse. However, it is important to note that alongside the exponential increase in technology-facilitated abuse and the avoidance of responsibility by those who should be creating safe environments, this rhetoric adds to a perfect storm that enables child sexual abuse to proliferate in the UK and across the globe.

Tackling the Issue Head-On

The UK has traditionally taken a heavy police-led approach to online child sexual abuse. Over the last 10 years, however, there has been growing recognition that we cannot police our way out of this issue – the scale of the threat is much too large for our frontline response capabilities to address. Instead, we require a whole-of-society approach focused on stopping the abuse before it ever starts.

Other key frontline actors include social welfare, health, child helplines, schools and other child protection system actors. However, law enforcement remains one of the main first responders particularly for tech-facilitated child sexual abuse, as recipients of the relevant referrals. Here, there is increased recognition of the need for a law enforcement response that is not only focused on bringing perpetrators to justice, but also on public health and primary prevention through the creation of safe environments and disruption of cycles of violence through an increased focus on safeguarding.

This is supported by the passage in 2023 of the Online Safety Act, which represents a significant advancement in the UK response. This legislation followed in the footsteps of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act – both are global firsts and important for prevention, setting the tone for what is acceptable behaviour and who should be held accountable.

The Online Safety Act aims to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. Notably, it recognises the fact that increased regulation is key to making online environments less conducive to the activities of offenders – and supports a preventative approach that seeks to address several of the main drivers of online child sexual abuse.

The UK should continue to share its expertise with, and learn from, international partners to support efforts to combat cross-border child sexual abuse and human trafficking

Against this backdrop, UK-based NGOs continue to play a major role in supporting the takedown of child sexual abuse content and in working with offenders to prevent re-offending. Examples include the important work of the Internet Watch Foundation, NSPCC, and Stop It Now! UK and Ireland, among others.

Alongside all of this, the last 10 years have also seen a growth in societal awareness raising, notably through the #MeToo and other survivor-led movements. To capitalise on this growing awareness, more focused coordination among actors working on various parts of the issue is needed to ensure that we are tackling the issue head on and in a way that can effect change at scale.

UK Expertise on a Global Stage

The UK response in 2023 is stronger than ever before, with now much more robust legal backing compared to other countries. The UK also remains a leader in international cooperation and should continue to share its expertise with, and learn from, international partners to support efforts to combat cross-border child sexual abuse and human trafficking.

However, there is an urgent need for more national-level representative data on prevalence and better administrative data sharing across the country on trends. The UK has the opportunity to undertake a UK-wide prevalence survey on child abuse and neglect, led by the Office of National Statistics, which is currently scoping the feasibility of such a study. Having up-to-date prevalence statistics that include children and young people’s own self-reporting of experiences – including online – is key to improving our understanding of the issue and how it has changed over time. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all encouraged to support this endeavour.

What does the future hold for the prevention of and wider response to child sexual abuse? We know that technology will continue to advance and along with it will come new and different types of harms that children may experience. For example, a recent study on extended reality and relevant UK policy and legislation identified key issues for future consideration around Haptics (the technology that simulates the senses of touch and motion), age verification, encryption and AI-generated child sexual abuse images and videos.

Above all, we know that the future requires stronger tech company accountability – online child sexual abuse exists because it is allowed to exist. The government must urgently identify options to hold tech companies accountable – strengthening regulatory frameworks, metrics and gold standards for detection, response and safety by design, and means to measure adherence.

Beyond this, the UK government must continue and expand existing prevention and education programmes targeting not only children but also parents, caregivers, educators, those concerned about their own behaviour, and members of wider communities. Raising awareness of the signs of abuse and the importance of reporting is crucial. This includes allocating sufficient resources for evidence-based preventive education programmes in schools and communities. This is one of the most effective ways to combat child sexual abuse, but it also needs to be more rigorously tested and evaluated.

Finally, greater investment is needed in joining data together to look across the threat. Much of the data in this field is siloed. Breaking down these siloes requires enhanced coordination and information sharing among law enforcement, child protective services, healthcare professionals and social workers, among others.

Only by addressing these key areas can we ensure that the next decade sees a dramatic reduction in child sexual abuse and a safe and future-proof environment for children to grow up in in the UK.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Professor Deborah Fry

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