Online risks, child exploitation & grooming
In 2016/17, police forces in England and Wales recorded 5,653 incidents of sexual crimes against children where there was an online element to the crime. In 2017/18, the figure had grown to 8,525 offences. Since 2016, approximately 400-450 people are arrested in the UK each month for offences of online-facilitated child sexual abuse (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, 2020).
Youth online: activity and privacy
Research published by the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (2020) found that 87% of Australian children aged 4-7 years, 98% of children aged 9-11 years, and 100% of children aged 12-17 years use the internet, and that 16% of children aged 4-7, 40% of children aged 8-11, 73% of children aged 12-15 and 91% of children aged 16-17 years do so without supervision. Almost one-third (30%) of 4 years olds were found to have access to their own personal device (most often a tablet).
A recent survey of Australian youth aged 12-17 years has found that teens spend an average of 14.4 hours per week online, with males spending more time online (15 hours) than females (13.8 hours). Just over four in 10 teens had at least one negative online experience (e.g., being contacted by a stranger; receiving inappropriate, unwanted content) in the six months to September 2020, with this increasing to over 50% of those aged 14-17 years. Nine in 10 teens, meanwhile, sought to build positive relationships online, and having negative online experiences made teens more aware of the impact of their online actions and motivated them to engage in more positive behaviour online (Office of the eSafety Commissioner, 2021).
Among children aged 4-7 years, around one-in-five engaged in activities which had the potential to increase their risks of being exploited online, such as: playing interactive games (17%); and chatting with friends and family via video call (24%). Among those 8-11 years, half reportedly played interactive games (54%), and 18% used messaging apps. The proportion using messaging apps increased significantly amongst 12-15 year olds (54%), whilst by this age 42% were also using social media to view or post content (Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, 2020).
A survey of children aged 8-17 years and their parents, found that six in ten children have communicated with someone they first met online, one in eight children have sent a photo or video of themselves to someone they first met online, and one in eight children have met someone face-to-face after first getting to know them online. Seven in ten young people aged 14–17 have seen sexual images online in the past year, while close to half have received sexual messages from someone online in the past year. Parents’ awareness of their children’s exposure to sexual material online is much lower than their actual rate of exposure. This suggests that children may not be telling their parents about experiences that are embarrassing, sensitive or stigmatising (Office of the eSafety Commissioner, 2022).
A 2018 survey of 3,520 parents of children aged 2–17 years found that 81% of parents with pre-schoolers say their children use the internet, and that of these parents, 94% say that their child was using the internet by the age of 4 years (Office of the eSafety Commissioner, 2019a).
The same 2018 survey found that parents’ three most common concerns regarding their children online were: exposure to inappropriate content other than pornography (38%), contact with strangers (37%) and being bullied online (34%). The majority of parents, meanwhile, indicated that they were not confident in their ability to deal with negative online experiences of their children (Office of the eSafety Commissioner, 2019b).
A 2017 Australian Child Health Poll published by the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne found that:
- Almost all (94%) of teens aged 13-17 years, two-thirds (67%) of primary school children aged 6-12 years, and over a third (36%) of pre-schoolers aged 3-6 years have their own personal mobile screen device (e.g. smartphone or tablet).
- 71% of teens, 17% of primary school children and 13% of pre-schoolers report using a smartphone every day.
- Three in four (78%) teenagers and one in six (16%) primary school-aged children have their own social media accounts.
- Two-thirds (66%) of Australian children use screen-based devices without adult supervision at least once a week, with one-third doing so every day. Parents reported that 50% of children aged less than 6 years use screen-based devices without adult supervision (Rhodes, 2017).
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner released a research snapshot which provided updated information on the online activity of Australian children and youth (eSafety.gov.au, 2018). This snapshot showed that:
At June 2015, over 935,000 Australian teens had gone online in the previous four weeks. That equates to 82% of all teens, up from 74% four years earlier.
- Of teen internet users, 88% went online more than once per day.
- At June 2011, smartphones were used by less than a quarter of teens (aged 14 – 17 years). Four years later, at June 2015, 80% of all Australian teens used a smartphone.
- Tablets were used by 27% of teens in June 2014; this figure rose to 39% just twelve months later.
- At June 2011, 39% of teens (aged 14 – 17 years) used the internet for social networking. Four years later, at June 2015, 54% of teens used the internet for this purpose.
Youth online: exposure to pornography
Research conducted by Our Watch identified that nearly half (48%) of young men have seen pornography by the age of 13 and nearly half (48%) of young women by the age of 15. The survey of nearly 2000 young Australians, aged 15-20 years, found that over half (56%) of young men indicated that they viewed pornography at least once per week over the past 12 months, while 15% of young women reported at least weekly usage (Our Watch, 2020).
The Our Watch survey with young people aged 15-20 years found that a high rate of participants reported using pornography as a source of information to learn about sex and sexual relationships in the past 12 months (60% of young men and 41% of young women) (Our Watch, 2020).
A study with 463 college males in the US found that more frequent pornography use was significantly related to a higher likelihood of committing both verbally and physically coercive sexual acts; however when both frequency of use and number of modalities used to access pornography (internet as well as, for example, books, magazines, movies) were considered, the number of modalities was significant in predicting sexually coercive behaviours, while frequency of pornography use was not. A threshold analysis revealed that two or more pornography modalities was the most significant predictor of likelihood of both verbal and physical coercion; meaning that if an individual used two or more modalities to access pornography, as opposed to just one, they were at the highest risk of sexually coercive behaviours (Marshall, Miller & Bouffard, 2021).
An online survey of young adults aged 18-25 years in the US found that most (82%) young adults indicated they had viewed pornography online. These emerging adults were found to endorse both positive and negative attitudes towards online pornography. Having positive or neutral attitudes towards pornography was associated with higher rape myth acceptance, while having more accurate knowledge of pornography was associated with reduced rape myth acceptance (Noll, Harsey, & Freyd, 2022).
Results of Wave 7 of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, conducted in 2016, revealed that at age 16–17, significantly more boys than girls had intentionally viewed pornography in the past 12 months: almost three quarters of boys but only one in three girls said they had viewed pornography in that time. Boys also reported viewing pornography far more frequently than girls: one in 10 boys (11%) and less than one in 100 girls (0.004%) said they watched pornography daily (Warren & Swami, 2019).
Teens and young adults, both girls and boys have a cavalier attitude toward porn:
- When they talk about pornography with friends, 90% of teens, and 96% of young adults say they do so in a neutral, accepting, or encouraging way.
- Only 1 in 20 young adults and 1 in 10 teens say their friends think viewing pornography is a bad thing. (Enough is Enough, 2017)
Teens are watching more porn and seeking it out more than any other generation:
- Among those age 13 – 17 years: 8% daily; 18% weekly; 17% once or twice a month.
- Among those aged 18 – 24 years: 12% daily; 26% weekly; 19% once or twice a month.
- 83% of boys and 57% of girls have seen group sex online; 32% of boys and 18% of girls have viewed bestiality online.
- 8.2% of top-rated porn scenes contain physical aggression (spanking, gagging, slapping, etc.); 48.7% contain verbal aggression (name calling). Perpetrators were usually male, 94% of the targets were women. (Enough is Enough, 2017)
The results of the third Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS), conducted with a representative sample of youth in the US aged 10 – 17 years in 2010, showed that 23% reported unwanted exposure to pornography online, which was a decrease from 34% found in the second YISS conducted in 2005 (Jones, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2012). Despite the decrease in unwanted exposure, the proportion reporting deliberate access to online pornography remained relatively stable over time, suggesting that factors such as increasing use and efficacy of spamware and filters, or better education or understanding among youth, may have contributed to the decline in unintentional exposure (Jones et al., 2012).
In a recent systematic review, Klettke, Hallford and Mellor (2014) defined “sexting” as “sending, receiving or forwarding sexually explicit messages, images, or photos to others through electronic means, primarily between cellular phones”.
Results of the 6th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health, completed by over 6,000 Australian students in Grades 10-12, showed that 44% of students reported having received a sexually explicit nude or nearly nude photo or video of someone else, and that 32% reported having sent a sexually explicit nude or nearly nude photo or video of themselves. Just 6% reported sending a nude or nearly nude photo or video of someone else (Fisher, Waling, Kerr, et al., 2019).
A study with 1370 Spanish university students found that 37.1% of participants had created and sent their nude images or sexual content to someone, with no differences found between gender. Out of all the participants, 6.4% had engaged in sexting coercion perpetration, and 32.7% had been victims of sexting coercion. Males were 7.56 times more likely to pressure someone to sext than females. Examination of the link between sexting behaviours and mental health showed that among males, none of the sexting behaviours (sexting, sexting coercion perpetration or sexting coercion victimisation) were associated with poorer mental health, while among females, each of the three forms of sexting behaviours were found to be associated with poorer mental health (Gasso, Mueller-Johnson, Agustina, & Gomez-Duran, 2021).
A meta-analysis of studies examining the prevalence of multiple forms of sexting behaviour among youth showed that the mean prevalence for sending and receiving sexts was 14.8% and 27.4% respectively. The prevalence of forwarding a sext without consent was 12%, and the prevalence of having a sext forwarded without consent was 8.4% (Madigan, Ly, Rash, Van Ouytsel & Temple, 2018).
A study of young Australian adults, with a mean age of 21 years, found that sharing of sexts was relatively common, with approximately 1 in 5 participants having shown or shared a sext with another person for whom it was not originally intended (Clancy, Klettke & Hallford., 2019).
A study of Irish adolescents revealed that while more girls (29%) than boys (15%) had been asked to send a sexually explicit image, the prevalence for having sent a sexual picture was comparable (9% of girls and 8% of boys). The rate of having received unwanted sexually explicit images was much higher for girls (22%) than for boys (8%) (Foody, Mazzone, Laffan, Loftsson, & O’Higgins Norman, 2021).
A Swedish study which surveyed adolescents aged 12 – 16 years found that 20 – 32% reported having received sexts (“images or videos that contain nudity or are sexual in nature”), while 4 – 16% reported having sent them (Burén & Lunde, 2018).
A collaborative report of youth and sexting behaviour has described the results of recent research conducted in the UK (Safer Internet Centre), Australia (Office of the eSafety Commissioner), and New Zealand (Netsafe). In the UK, 19% of youth aged 12-16 years said they were aware of a “few” incidents in the past year involving peers sharing self-generated images, with 12% reporting that it happens “all the time”. In Australia, around 5% of youth aged 14-17 reported having sent a nude or nearly nude image or video of themselves in the past year, while 15% reported having been asked for an image or video (52% of which requests came from an unknown person). Similarly in New Zealand, approximately 4% of youth aged 14-17 reported having shared a nude or nearly nude of themselves in the past 12 months, while 1 in 5 had been asked for a nude of themselves during the same period (UK Safer Internet Centre, Netsafe, & Office of the eSafety Commissioner, 2017).
Recent research with young people in Australia has shown that 38% of 13 – 15 year olds and 50% of 16 – 18 year olds report having sent a sexual picture or video of themselves to another person, and that 62% of 13 – 15 year olds and 70% of 16 – 18 year olds report having received a sexual image (Crofts et al., 2015).
In England, 38% of youth aged 14 – 17 years had sent sexual images to a partner during or after their relationship, and 49% had received them (Wood, Barter, Stanley, Aghtaie & Larkins, 2015).
Lifetime prevalence rates for sexting have been reported from as low as 2.5% – for appearing in or creating “nude or nearly nude” images among a representative sample of youth aged 10 – 17 years (with 7% indicating receipt of such images) (Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2012), to as high 48% – for receipt of sexually suggestive written messages among an online panel sample of teens aged 13 – 19 years (National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2008).
Although 86% of a sample of 1,560 US youth viewed underage sexting as a crime, this knowledge did not appear to affect the prevalence of the practice (Gewirtz-Meydan, Mitchell & Rothman, 2018).
The results of the 2017 Youth Risk Behaviour Survey in the US showed that, among young people in grades 9-12 from four urban school districts, 5.7% of boys and 4.8% girls reported having had a sexual photo of themselves shared without their permission (Pampati, Lowry, Moreno, Rasberry, & Steiner, 2020).
The results of the 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey showed that many young people lack understanding of consent in regards to image sharing. More than one in four young people (aged 16-24 years) reported they believe that “if a woman sends a nude image to her partner, then she is partly responsible if he shares it without her permission” (Politoff, Crabbe, Honey, et al., 2019).
Other self-generated content
In the first six months of 2020, 44% of all the child sexual abuse content dealt with by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) involved self-generated material; this was an increase from 15% in 2019 (UK Safer Internet Centre, 2020).
A report released by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA, 2020) cited research published by the Internet Watch Foundation in 2018, which found that the majority of images and videos of live-streamed child sexual abuse analysed by the IWF depicted children assessed as being 11-13 years old. In the first quarter of 2019, 81% of self-generated content analysed by the IWF was of children aged 11-13, predominantly girls. IICSA (2020) quotes the Chief Executive of IWF as saying “we are extremely worried about girls, young girls, 11 to 13, in their bedroom with a camera-enabled device and an internet connection”.
In the first six months of 2019, the IWF dealt with 22,484 reports of self-generated child sexual abuse material. Just over a sixth of these images were categorised as the highest severity, involving penetrative sexual activity and/or sexual activity with an animal or sadism (WeProtect Global Alliance, 2019).
The Netclean 2018 report, for which an online survey was conducted with 272 police officers across 30 countries, showed that self-produced material is common in their investigations of child sexual abuse and exploitation, with 91% of officers saying that voluntary self-produced material is common or very common in their investigations, and 89% reporting that the amount of voluntary self-produced material they see is increasing. More than three quarters of officers, meanwhile, reported that it is common or very common to see images produced as a result of grooming, and 65% reported that it is common or very common to see images produced as a result of sexual extortion. The majority of officers also indicated that the amount of images that they see produced as a result of grooming and sexual extortion is increasing. Officers did report, however, that it is frequently difficult to determine the exact circumstances in which an image was produced (Baines, 2019).
The Netclean 2019 report, for which an online survey was conducted with 450 police officers across 41 countries, showed that officers’ opinions were split regarding the frequency with which they came across live-streaming content in their investigations of child sexual abuse and exploitation. While nearly four in ten (38 %) of the surveyed police officers reported that the material is common or very common in their investigations, 42% reported that it is uncommon or very uncommon. Of the three types of live-streaming (voluntarily self-produced, induced self-produced and distance live-streaming), voluntarily self-produced content was seen as most common. The majority of respondents also indicated that live-streaming content is increasing (Netclean, 2019).
Online solicitation and grooming
Solicitation has been defined as “requests to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information” (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2006), while grooming refers to a set of behaviours that occurs over an extended period of time, with the aim of developing a relationship with a young person, and which may eventually lead to the sexual solicitation of that youth (Dooley, Cross, Hearn & Treyvaud, 2009).
Although no study has specifically examined the proportion of adults holding online sexualised conversations with young people in England and Wales, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) reports that it is unlikely that figures would be below the lowest estimate of 1 in 10 adults (IICSA, 2020).
Over a three-month period in 2018, the National Crime Agency (NCA) received over 1,500 reports of grooming in respect of 12 internet platforms (IICSA, 2020).
A Finnish study of 1,762 children and adolescents aged 11-17 years found that 62% reported being contacted online by a person they know, or suspect is an adult or at least five years older than themselves. Among those contacted by adults, 17% reported receiving messages with sexual content weekly, and 29% reported these messages at least once a month. Just under one third (32%) of children contacted by adults had been offered a reward, including money, cigarettes, for sexual acts. The majority (72%) of the children felt their grooming experiences did not have any particular consequences. More than half (67%) disclosed their grooming experiences to someone – the majority of these (93%) told a friend, while 19% told their mother and 14% a sibling. Just 4% reported their grooming experience to police (Juusola, Simola, Tasa, Karhu, & Sillfors, 2021).
A study with more than 1,000 undergraduate college students in the United States found that one-quarter of participants conversed with adult strangers online as minors, and that 65% of those participants (17% of the total sample) experienced sexual solicitation. Slightly less than a quarter of the total sample (23%) reported engaging in an intimate online relationship with an adult stranger, although 38% of those youth met the adult in person. A large majority of those who did meet in-person (68%) reported physical sexual intercourse (Greene-Colozzi, Winters, Blasko, & Jeglic, 2020)
A German study of adolescents aged 14 – 17 years found that 22% reported online sexual interaction with an adult, with just 10% perceiving this interaction as a negative experience (Sklenarova, Schulz, Schuhmann, & Osterheider, 2018).
A recent Spanish study found that 15.6% of girls and 9.3% of boys aged 12 -15 reported online sexual solicitations from adults (De Santisteban & Gámez-Guadix, 2018).
An Australian survey of online safety experiences conducted with more than 3,000 young people aged 8 to 17 years showed that 25% of youth had been contacted by a stranger in the previous 12 months, and 10% had been sent inappropriate content online (Office of the eSafety Commissioner, 2018).
A study of chat log communications between 38 adult males and children who were accessed via social media for sexually exploitative purposes found that offenders’ requests for sexual activity often occurred early in the communication exchange, and that frequent shifts in discourse strategy were used to elicit compliance, as opposed to the gradual grooming methods observed with offline offending (Powell, Casey & Rouse, 2021).
A study of transcripts of adults who sexually groomed decoy victims online found that the large majority of offenders (89%) introduced sexual content in the first conversation with the decoy victim. Results also showed that in 96% of cases, the offender and decoy victim arranged an in-person meeting – most commonly (89% of cases) the offender introduced the idea of this meeting. On average, the idea of meeting in person was introduced after 3.4 days (Winters, Kaylor & Jeglic, 2017).
A study of Swedish court judgements involving 50 offenders and 122 child victims identified two main strategies that offenders used when inciting children to engage in online sexual activity: pressure (threats, bribes, or nagging) and sweet-talk (flattery, acting as a friend, or expressing love). Overall, this research showed that the offenders who used pressure were younger and targeted older children than the offenders who used sweet-talk (Joleby, Lunde, Landström & Jonsson, 2021).
In the 2010 Youth Internet Safety Survey, young people aged 10 – 17 years were asked whether, in the past year, anyone on the internet had asked “for sexual information about yourself”, “to talk online about sex”, or “to do something sexual”, when this was not wanted (Jones et al., 2012). The prevalence of online solicitation was found to range from 2% among 10 – 12 year olds, to 14% among 16 – 17 year olds, with an average prevalence rate of 9% across all ages (Jones et al., 2012).
Data from earlier versions of the Youth Internet Safety Survey have shown that the majority of online solicitations come from other youth (48% in YISS-1 and 43% in YISS-2) or from young adults aged 18 – 25 years (20% in YISS-1 and 30% in YISS-2), with few coming from adults aged older than 25 years (4% in YISS-1 and 9% in YISS-2) (Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Wolak, 2000; Wolak et al., 2006).
The Youth Internet Safety Survey, conducted every five years in the US, has provided some insight into changes in online risk exposure over the period 2000 to 2010. Survey results across three data collection periods has shown that the proportion of youth reporting online solicitation has decreased from 19% in 2000, to 13% in 2005 and just 9% in 2010 (Jones et al., 2012).
Image-based sexual abuse
Image-based sexual abuse (IBSA) has been defined as the “non-consensual creation, distribution or threatened distribution of nude or sexual images” (Henry, Flynn & Powell, 2019). A survey with over 4,000 Australians aged 16-49 years found that 23% reported being a victim of at least one form of IBSA. The most common forms of victimisation were nude or sexual images being taken without consent, with 20% reporting these experiences. Also common was nude or sexual images being distributed without consent, with one in 10 (11%) reporting these experiences. This is likely to be an underestimate, since many victims will never discover that images of them have been either created or distributed (Henry et al., 2019). Furthermore, 50% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and 56% of respondents disclosing a disability reported ever experiencing at least one form of IBSA (Henry et al., 2019).
A wider survey with more than 6,000 respondents aged 16-64 years from across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, found that one in three (37.7%) reported at least one form of IBSA. Most commonly, participants reported that someone had taken a nude or sexual image of them without their consent (33.2%); one in five (20.9%) reported having had a nude or sexual image shared without consent; and almost one in five (18.7%) reported that someone had threatened to share a nude or sexual image of them. Notably, one in seven (14.1%) were found to have experienced all three forms of IBSA (Henry et al., 2020).
In regard to IBSA perpetration, the same survey with more than 6,000 respondents across three countries (Australia, NZ and the UK) found that more than one in six (17.5%) of all respondents reported engaging in at least one form of IBSA perpetration across their lifetime against a person over the age of 16 years. Young men aged 20–29 years were the most likely to self-disclose engaging in at least one form of IBSA overall (33.5%), closely followed by men aged 30–39 years (29.9%) and young men aged 16–19 years (28.8%). Young women aged 20–29 years were fourth most likely to self-disclose engaging in any IBSA (20.4%). Differences also existed by sexuality, with 28.6% of respondents identifying as LGB+ having engaged in one or more forms of IBSA perpetration, compared with 16.1% of heterosexual respondents. One common motivation reported by respondents was for “fun” or to be “sexy” (61.2% for taking; 58% for sharing; 55.8% for threatening). Other motivations included wanting to “impress friends” and/or “trade the images” (37.8% for taking; 54.9% for sharing; 54.9% for threatening); and wanting to “control the person in the image” (45% for taking; 57.1% for sharing; 63.2% for threatening). Finally, respondents reported being motivated to “embarrass” and/ or “get back at the person” depicted in the image (38% for taking; 51.7% for sharing; 61.4% for threatening), (Henry et al., 2020).
Image-based sexual abuse is closely related to what has been labelled sexual extortion, (or “sextortion”), defined as “threats to expose a sexual image in order to make a person do something or for other reasons, such as revenge or humiliation” (Wolak & Finkelhor, 2016). Sextortion has also been defined as “the process through which one person is blackmailed by another ‘to extort sexual favours, money, or other benefits’ under the threat of sharing the victim’s intimate images, videos, or other sexualized media without their consent” (International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, 2018). Sextortion episodes are frequently diverse, but broadly may involve such instances as: an aggrieved ex-partner threatening to disseminate images taken and shared during a romantic or sexual relationship; or an online perpetrator using a sexual image they have obtained to demand more images or sexual interactions (Wolak & Finkelhor, 2016).
The Crimes against Children Research Center, in partnership with Thorn, conducted an online survey of over 1,500 young people ages 18 to 25 who had been targets of sextortion. The results of this research showed that sextortion in face-to-face relationships tended to be perpetrated by men (89% of cases) and targeted against women (87%), although men were victims in 11% of cases and perpetrators were female in 9%. As with incidents in face-to-face relationships, victims of sextortion in online relationships were predominantly women (77%) although men were victims in 20% of cases (Wolak & Finkelhor, 2016). This survey also found that 45% of perpetrators carried out their threats (Thorn, 2019).
A second wave of the Thorn sextortion survey was conducted in 2017, with 2,097 participants aged 13 to 25 who had been targets of sextortion. Nearly 1 in 4 participants were aged 13 or younger when the sextortion began. Younger victims were more likely to be threatened by an online offender (approximately 60% of participants who were ages 13 and younger when threatened, and slightly more than 50% of participants aged 14, did not know their offender offline). While more than 2 in 3 participants disclosed to someone about the sextortion, only 17% of those who disclosed reported to law enforcement, while 54% told a family member or friend and 26% reported to a platform or website (Thorn, 2019).
A study of the prevalence of sextortion behaviours among a nationally representative sample of U.S. middle and high school students (aged 12-17 years) found that approximately 5% reported being a victim of sextortion, while about 3% admitted to threatening others. Males and non-heterosexual youth were more likely to be targeted, and males were more likely to target others. Youth who threatened others with sextortion were also more likely to have been victims themselves (Patchin & Hinduja, 2018).
In an analysis of 78 sextortion cases conducted by the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, 71% of the cases were found to involve a victim under the age of 18. Sextortion of children is believed to be underreported, however; therefore the true number of children who are victims of sextortion is unknown (International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, 2018). Sextortion cases have also often been found to have “more minor victims per offender than all other child sexual exploitation offenses” as offenders commonly communicate with multiple, and sometimes hundreds of potential victims at one time (International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, 2018).
Child exploitation material
Child exploitation material (CEM, sometimes referred to as child pornography), is sexually abusive images of children (Krone & Smith, 2017). Online CEM is now the predominant form and a focus of law enforcement activity (Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, 2017).
In 2018, US technology companies (with global users) reported over 45 million online photos and videos of children being sexually abused – more than double what they found the previous year (WeProtect Global Alliance, 2019).
Reports of child exploitation material are growing exponentially. Of the 23.4 million reports of images received through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline since 1998, 9.6 million (40%) occurred in 2017 alone – nearly 1 million per month. New CEM is also constantly emerging – 84% of detected images and 91% of videos are reported only once, showing the need for complex detection algorithms that recognise the nature of CEM content (Bursztein, DaLaune, Eliff, et al., 2019). In 2015, British Telecom conducted a one-off exercise to try and establish the number of times that they blocked access to child sexual abuse imagery in the UK. Between January and November 2015, “the average number of attempts to retrieve the CSA image was 36,738 every 24 hours” (IICSA, 2020).
In 2016, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection conducted a study reviewing close to 152,000 reports and examined 43,762 unique images and videos classified by Cybertip.ca as child sexual abuse material. Key findings of the image analysis included that: 78% of the images and videos depicted prepubescent children under 12 years old; 80% of the children were girls; 77% of the children’s faces were visible in the images and videos (Canadian Centre for Child Protection, 2016).
A content analysis of a sample of 729 indecent images of children from 26 offenders has shown that victims were most often White females aged approximately 9.5 years, and that most offenders were White males aged 18-24 years. Most of the analysed images showed erotic posing with no sexual activity. Just over one in ten (13%) images showed sexual activity by an adult on a child and an additional 13% showed sexual activity by a child on an adult (Tejeiro, Alison, Hendricks, Giles, Long & Shipley, 2020).
According to the Internet Watch Foundation, which reviews reports of CEM in the UK, 53% of CEM images depict abuse of children under 10 years of age, and 28% of images involve rape and torture (Internet Watch Foundation, 2017).
An online survey of survivors of child sexual abuse and CEM production found that the vast majority of respondents were abused before the age of 12 (87%) and over half of the respondents reported that their abuse began at or before the age of four. Nearly all (95%) respondents reported that still images/photographs of the abuse had been taken, while 72% reported that videos were taken and 14% reported that their abuse had been lived-streamed online. More than half (58%) of respondents reported having been abused by more than one person – some by multiple family members, and 49% of survivors appeared to have been victims of “organised sexual abuse” (Canadian Centre for Child Protection, 2017).
The growth of online CEM is a global threat requiring coordinated action – ten years ago, 70% of reports of online CEM received through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline reflected abuse in the Americas. Today, 68% of reports relate to abuse in Asia, while 19% of reports relate to abuse in the Americas, 6% in Europe and 7% in Africa (Bursztein, DeLaune, Eliff et al., 2019).
During 2016–17 the Australian Federal Police (AFP) received more than 10,000 reports about child sexual exploitation (not all of which involved CEM) and arrested 70 offenders on 118 charges (AFP, 2017).
In 2020, the ACCCE Child Protection Triage Unit received more than 21,000 reports of online child sexual exploitation. The AFP charged a total of 191 people with 1,847 alleged child abuse-related offences in 2020 (Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, 2021).
The Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner has investigated large numbers of reports of online CEM, with 7,400 investigations reported for 2015–16 and 10,000 for 2016–17 (ACMA & Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner 2017, 2016).
Online child exploitation material offenders
Research suggests that a significant proportion of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) is produced and distributed by parents who victimise their children. An online convenience sample of 150 adult survivors of CSAM found that, of those abused by a single perpetrator, 42% identified their biological or adoptive father or stepfather as the offender; and of those abused by multiple perpetrators 67% identified their biological or adoptive parents or step-parents as the primary perpetrators (Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP), 2017).
A recent Australian study, looking at 82 cases of CSAM produced and distributed by parental figures, found that offending parents are most often the male parental figures of the victims, and victims are predominately girls under nine years of age (Salter, Wong, Breckenridge, Scott, Cooper & Peleg 2021). Over three-quarters (78%) of identified CSAM cases perpetrated by parental figures involved single perpetrators, while the remaining cases (22%) involved multiple perpetrators. A male perpetrator was involved in 90% of the cases – 72% of cases involved a single male perpetrator, 10% involved a single female perpetrator, and 18% involved both male and female perpetrators (Salter et al., 2021). This study revealed three distinct profiles of CSAM offenders in parental roles: the first was a male offender who forms adult relationships and has children of his own to exploit; the second was the male offender who forms a relationship with a woman and exploits her children or seeks to obtain children by some other means (e.g. through surrogacy); and the third was a biological mother who produces CSAM of her children at the behest of men she knows in person or online (Salter et al., 2021).
A recent review of the literature on those who view or collect child exploitation material (CEM) found that CEM offenders are typically male, white, with an average age of between 35 and 45 and they are often single. They also tend to be better educated and more likely work in professional occupations than other sexual offenders. CEM offenders also tend to be less assertive, and less socially confident than other sexual offenders and show higher levels of sexual deviancy. CEM only offenders also do not typically have previous offending histories for contact sexual offences (Brown & Bricknell, 2018).
A study of the collecting behaviours of CEM offenders, involving an online survey completed by adults previously convicted of CEM offences in the United States and a comparison non-offending population of adults, found that offenders viewed more diverse categories of adult sexual exploitation material (SEM) than non-offenders, and that no offenders viewed CEM exclusively. In fact 74% of CEM offenders viewed more adult SEM than CEM. The results of this study did not support highly preferential viewing among most CEM offenders, but rather general novelty seeking, indicating that paedophilic interests are not necessarily the sole or even primary motivator for CEM behaviour (Steel, Newman, O’Rourke, & Quayle, 2021).
Research on CEM users demonstrates that 50-85% admit to having undetected child victims, and the average number of undetected victims per offender was 8 (Johnson, 2020).
The National Juvenile Online Victimization study in the US revealed contact offences in one of every six cases that began as a CEM investigation with no prior knowledge by law enforcement of possible contact offences by the target (US Department of Justice, 2010).
Krone and Smith (2017) report a study of 152 federal offenders investigated by the Australian Federal Police for online child sexual exploitation offences. All offenders were men, most were described as Caucasian, and most were aged between 46 – 55 years. Of the 152 offenders, 85 (66%) had no prior criminal history. Eleven offenders had previously been convicted of a CEM offence and 10 had been convicted of a contact child sexual exploitation offence. The study also found that characteristics related to having a record of contact offender included: low SES, a conviction for producing CEM, undertaking a networking role in CEM offending, providing CEM, and having a criminal history of charges for producing CEM (Krone & Smith, 2017).
A review of the literature on online CEM offenders shows that on average, offenders are almost exclusively male and Caucasian in ethnicity, tend to be in their late-30s to mid-40s, employed and well educated – in contrast to the profile of the general offending population, high proportions of whom are of ethnic minority status and have limited educational backgrounds. Additionally, studies have shown typically low rates of historical and prospective offending among CEM offenders (Henshaw, Ogloff & Clough, 2017).
A study of financial transactions made by a cohort of Australians who paid known facilitators of CSA live streaming in the Philippines, found that offenders were likely to be aged in their 50s or 60s, and the majority (55%) had no criminal record. Most CSA live streaming transactions involved a small proportion of offenders: just 3% accounted for half of all transactions, while 25% made just 3% of the transactions (Brown, Napier & Smith, 2020).
A US study of 605 arrested CEM offenders found that less than one percent were female (Wolak, Finkelhor & Mitchell, 2011).
A 2014 analysis of 159 Dutch police files relating to indecent images of children identified that 35% of suspects were under the age of 18 (Leukfeldt, Jansen, & Stol, 2014).
Online child exploitation material: impact on victims
Gewirtz-Meydan and colleagues (2018) conducted a survey study with survivors of CEM production, and found that many participants reported they had a number of negative reactions “all of the time”: 74% felt ashamed, guilty, or humiliated all of the time, 54% always worried that people who saw the images would think they were a willing participant, 51% always felt it was their fault the images were created, 48% always worried about friends or other people they knew seeing the images, and 48% worried all the time that people who saw the images would recognize them.
Often, due to the permanence of online materials and lack of control over the audience viewing it, initial feelings of shame and anxiety can increase over time, negatively impacting a victim’s psychological state (Gerwirtz-Meydan et al., 2018).
Often a single perpetrator is unable to be identified, due to online sharing of materials, and can create feelings of re-victimisation, preventing closure for the individual (Leonard, 2010). This permanence and public accessibility can be one of the most difficult aspects for survivors to overcome (Gerwirtz-Meydan et al. 2018).
The concept of closure can be more difficult for victims of online abuse to achieve. It is important for the victim to identify their perpetrator as this allows them to focus their fears and enables confrontation as they attempt to achieve closure (Leonard, 2010). With online abuse however, the survivors are continually traumatised when considering how many people could potentially be looking at the material (Gerwirtz-Meydan et al., 2018; Leonard, 2010). Often a single perpetrator cannot be identified which creates a sense of ongoing abuse leading to feelings of unsafeness, sexualisation and victimisation (Leonard, 2010).
An online survey with survivors of CEM production found that younger survivors suffered higher levels of psychopathology in adulthood, and that specific reactions to the crime, guilt about the crime, as well as embarrassment related to authorities seeing the images, were predictive of adult trauma symptoms (Gewirtz-Meydan, Lahav, Walsh, et al., 2019).
An online survey of survivors of child sexual abuse and CEM production found that of the survivors of organised sexual abuse, 68% reported receiving a diagnosis of or made reference to dissociative disorders or experiencing dissociation, as compared to 25% of remaining respondents. Many survivors of organised sexual abuse reported that as a result of their dissociative identity disorder, they had difficulty with both memory recall and providing accurate accounts of the abuse they experienced (Canadian Centre for Child Protection, 2017).
In the online survey of survivors of child sexual abuse and CEM production, nearly 70% of respondents reported worrying about being recognised by someone who has seen images of their abuse (n=103). Thirty respondents (30%) reported being identified by a person who had viewed the child sexual abuse imagery (Canadian Centre for Child Protection, 2017).
Live streaming of child sexual abuse
Live streaming of child sexual abuse (CSA) involves broadcasting acts of sexual abuse of children live via webcam to people anywhere in the world (ECPAT International, 2017).
Europol (2020), in monitoring darknet sites, reported an increase in sharing of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) captured through webcam early in the COVID-19 pandemic (from March to May 2020). This included a category listed on forums as “live streams”. Europol attributed this increase to offenders moving from contact offending to online offending due to travel restrictions (Napier, Teunissen & Boxall, 2021a).
The Internet Watch Foundation (2018) conducted an international analysis of over 2,000 image and video captures from CSA live streaming from August to October 2017. The study found that 98% of CSA live streaming captures showed children 13 years or younger, and 28% showed children aged 10 years or younger. Forty percent of the captures were classified by the Internet Watch Foundation as containing “serious” sexual abuse, with 18% involving the rape and sexual torture of children (IWF, 2018, cited in Napier, Teunissen & Boxall, 2021a).
A study analysing chat logs from seven offenders who watched and directed the sexual abuse of 74 children (mostly in the Philippines) via live stream found that offenders paid facilitators and victims very small amounts of money (median A$51) to view the sexual abuse of children, and used mainstream messaging and video platforms (e.g. Facebook) to communicate and transmit the abusive materials (Napier, Teunissen & Boxall, 2021a).
Further analysis of chat logs from seven offenders who watched and directed the sexual abuse of 74 children via live stream found that offenders accessed victims via three primary methods: establishing relationships and contact with Filipino locals; proactively contacting potential victims and facilitators through social media or dating sites; and facilitators proactively contacting potential offenders through social media and dating sites. Facilitators were found to be involved in 35% of the 145 CSA live streaming offences included in the dataset. At least 15 of the 20 facilitators were female, and most commonly they were a relative of the victim (Napier, Teunissen & Boxall, 2021b).
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