Online though their use varies across publications (Reid,

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Online though their use varies across publications (Reid,

Online child sexual abuse and exploitation:
Safeguarding children in a rapidly developing digital world

The following analysis examines the risk and
prevalence of online child sexual abuse and exploitation, and how this has
developed in recent years. Due to the nature of online communication, child
sexual exploitation is an international issue and this report will consider how
legislation and policy is affected. Specific attention will be given to policy
and practice in the UK and recommendations will be made to improve practice
following a review of the research evidence. 
The report will also provide a criticism of the current research base
and will outline areas in which further research is needed.

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What is
the nature of the problem?

The risks associated with children and young
people’s use of digital technologies, with specific reference to the internet,
are often split into four main categories; Content, Commerce, Conduct and
Contact, though their use varies across publications (Reid, 2009, Livingstone
& Smith, 2014). Content risks typically involve the child as a passive
recipient of mass produced content, some of which may not be age appropriate.
This may have been deliberately sought out by the child, pushed upon them via
pop-ups or malicious links, or accidently discovered. Commerce risks refer to
online advertising and increased financial pressures on consumers, which may or
may not be deliberately aimed at children. This is a particular concern in the
media at the current time with the rise of micro-transactions and ‘pay-to-win’
games which have been accused of introducing children to gambling (BBC News,
2017). Despite this increased public interest, Livingstone and Smith (2014)
found little quality research in this area, or in the area surrounding the
effects of violent content on young people. Conduct risks include cyberbullying
or ‘sexting’ where the child is an active participant in a wider networked
interaction with their peers, and these risks also frequently attract media
attention. Perhaps surprisingly, conduct risks pose more of a concern for
parents than contact risks; with only 24% of parents reporting concerns about
who may be contacting their child via their mobile phone, compared to 35% of
parents concerned about their child being bullied online, although both figures
have increased since 2015 (Ofcom, 2016, Pg129). Contact risks are generally
agreed to be interactions initiated by adults who are not typically known to
the child, and can extend to grooming and online sexual abuse. As with offline
sexual abuse, it can be difficult to determine the scale of the problem, in
part, due to a reluctance of victims to report the abuse, however services such
as the NSPCC and Barnardo’s have seen a 42% and 49% increase, respectively, in
the number of children referred for online abuse between 2013 and 2015 (NSPCC,
2015, Palmer, 2015), suggesting that this is a growing concern.  

What is
the scale of online sexual abuse and exploitation?

‘The potential scale of victimisation of
children or young people online makes the issue one of public health’ that
spans geographical borders (Webster et al, 2012, Pg10). Ofcom (2017) figures show
that home access to the internet has continued to increase amongst 5-15
year-olds from 94% in 2016 to 96% in 2017. Access to the internet is not a new
phenomenon, however access is becoming increasingly private, with ever-younger
children having unsupervised access to personal, internet-enabled devices.
Ofcom (2017) figures show a rise in the ownership and use of mobile phones and
tablet computers in all age groups, with the greatest rise in mobile phone use
in the 5-7 age group (43% vs. 28%). Despite this growth in the availability and
use of technology, it is suggested that incidences of online sexual abuse
remain low and that most risks are experienced by a small minority group
(Vandebosch et al, 2013), although this is contested. The NSPCC estimates that
5% of UK children are subjected to contact sexual abuse with approximately
10,000 new victims annually (Harker et al, 2013). The Child Exploitation and
Online Protection Centre (CEOP, 2013) receives roughly 1000 new reports each
year regarding online abuse by adults, suggesting that online sexual abuse is
far less common. Conversely, a survey conducted on a sample of 6,787 Swiss
students (Mohler-Kuo et al, 2014) found that 40.2% of girls and 17.2% of boys
had experienced some form of child sexual abuse, with sexual harassment via the
internet as the most common.

Estimates of the scale of abuse are difficult to obtain for a number of reasons
and this has helped to limit the availability of high-quality research. One
such reason is the unwillingness of victims to disclose details of their abuse,
a feature which is also common in cases of offline sexual abuse (Allnock and
Miller, 2013). As part of the European Online Grooming Project, co-funded by
the European Union, Stephen Webster and colleagues (2012) were able to
categorise victims of online grooming as either ‘vulnerable’ or ‘risk-takes’
(Pg15). Vulnerable victims typically displayed low self-esteem, had difficult
home lives or poor relationships with their parents, and were seeking a
positive relationship online. These victims were usually loyal to their abuser
and saw themselves as involved in a mutual relationship; they were therefore
often unable to recognise and report their abuse. Risk-takers were seen to be
more outgoing and confident online and were more complicit in their abuse than
their vulnerable counter-parts. Family aspects were less clear, and victims
were seen to be less confident and mature in real-life than they appeared
online. Risk-takers were also unlikely to report the abuse; however, this was
more often as the result of threats or blackmail resulting from their
complicity. Webster et al (2012) also conducted a series of focus groups with
young people between 11 and 16 years of age across the UK, Italy and Belgium,
and found that both boys and girls were resistant to telling parents and carers
about receiving inappropriate contact online, although girls were more likely
to tell a close friend. This was, in part, due to a fear that computer or
mobile phone privileges would be revoked, leading Webster to conclude that
removing internet access, either as a means of punishment or as a protective
aspect, ‘undermined potential for disclosure’ (2012, Pg21).  Other explanations for an unwillingness to disclose
may include feelings of shame or embarrassment in cases where a permanent
record of the abuse exists online (such as via photographs or videos), or a
fear of having their online behaviour discovered as this may differ from the
way the victim behaves in the ‘real-world’, and a related fear of being
punished for their behaviour (Palmer, 2015).

Another barrier to accurately determining
scale is raised by the varying definitions of online sexual abuse,
exploitation, risk, and harm, employed by researchers and practitioners across
the various disciplines. Risk and harm are regularly used interchangeably, and
researchers often disagree on whether to include acts which are welcomed or
initiated by children, or are unintentional in nature (Quayle, 2016). In her
review, Quayle (2016) found that although a number of studies existed which
aimed to determine the scale of online sexual abuse, these often produced
significantly different results. This was related to methodological
differences, the participants’ willingness to disclose, and whether sexual
abuse was the main focus of the interview. Quayle also found that many surveys
used a small number of questions which directly related to online abuse and
exploitation, which were then used to draw wide-reaching conclusions regarding
its scale. The use of limited questions was found to be partially determined by
the ethical issues surrounding such research, which caused practitioners to
feel reluctant to ask children and young people specific and direct questions
about their experiences of online abuse. 
Quayle (2016) ultimately concluded that little research gave appropriate
consideration to the distinct role of the internet in the online abuse and
exploitation of children. The link between technology and wider social
behaviour was also raised by Livingstone and Smith (2014) who outlined this as
an area which required further study.

Who is
most at risk?

A wider body of research can be found which
aims to determine the typical characteristics displayed by victims and
offenders (Martellozzo, 2013), however there are still gaps in the data. The
general conclusion can be made that those who are vulnerable offline are also
vulnerable online, however evidence suggests that there are further factors
which contribute to online vulnerability that cannot be explained by
traditional risk factors (Livingstone and Smith, 2014) and further research is
needed. From a review of cases supported by Barnardo’s services, Palmer (2015)
found that children and young people on the autistic spectrum, those suffering
from mental health issues who use the internet as a fulfilment tool, and young
people exploring their sexual orientation (typically males) were more at risk
of online sexual abuse and exploitation than their peers. However, many of the
children referred to Barnardo’s services did not display the same risk factors
which are typical of those vulnerable to offline abuse (such as being in care
or experiencing a difficult home life), and this makes identifying at risk
parties more difficult. A range of professionals participating in the study
share the concern that sexual behaviour has become more normalised online and
this is resulting in children and young people acting in a more sexualised way
than they would offline, and far quicker. Children are seen to be more
complicit in their abuse than is found offline and there is an accompanying
rise in the number of children referred who are displaying sexually harmful
behaviours in an online context, with 10-40% of specialist workers’ case-loads
involving a digital element (Palmer, 2015, Pg68). Such project workers have
also reported regular referrals for children and young people who do not
display traditional risk factors such as a pre-existing criminal record or
contact with social services. This mirrors the situation seen within child
sexual exploitation services and suggests that a wider range of children are
vulnerable to experiencing or developing sexually harmful behaviours online
than offline.

Webster et al (2012), found evidence of resilience to online grooming through a
review of the accounts and message histories of a number of online groomers
which can offer guidance for practitioners hoping to help develop resilience in
young people. Key features of resilience included an ability to recognise and
respond to risk, feeling confident in rejecting inappropriate approaches and
reporting their experiences, and having a supportive family network. The report
continued to criticise safety campaigns for failing to equip young people with
the knowledge required to recognise risk and build confidence. Webster and
colleagues found that whilst many of the participants in the study showed an
understanding of how a groomer might attempt to build a relationship with a
child via the internet, this was not necessarily translating into practice,
partly due to the children and young people holding a stereotypical view of
what a groomer might look like, which did not reflect reality. This led to some
members of the group, particularly those from a vocational education stream,
admitting that they would be more willing to meet a stranger from the internet
under particular circumstances, such as if they were physically attractive. The
report stressed that safety campaigns needed to tackle these beliefs, and
whilst it was not specifically touched on by the report, it can be argued that
research is needed to determine to what extend students engaged in vocational
education streams are missing out on key internet safety information and ensure
that this issue is resolved, possibly through a dedicated safety campaign.

What are
the effects of online abuse on children and young people, and how do
practitioners respond?

A review of a range of both online and offline
sexual abuse research conducted by Hanson (2017) concludes that elements of
abuse involving digital technology can and do affect victims in ways not
experienced by victims of sexual abuse which occurs entirely offline, at least
not to the same degree. This has implications for practice; technology can be
seen to change the behaviour of perpetrators, victims, and those at risk, and
therefore a complementary change in behaviour is required from parents and
professionals. Tink Palmer’s (2015) report draws on the experiences of hundreds
of children supported by Barnardo’s, and found that the police, social workers,
mental health works, and the criminal justice system could all be criticised
for failing to deal with online sexual abuse in an appropriate manner. From
interviews with professionals in these areas, Palmer found that a lack of
understanding and training was a key theme, with practitioners failing to
understand the impact of online abuse on children, and the complex nature of
the victim’s involvement, such as through the self-creation of inappropriate
images. Practitioners were found, in some cases, to view online abuse as a low
priority due to the non-contact nature of the abuse, and mental health services
were seen to be unequipped to deal with victims who did not display traditional
risk factors associated with offline abuse. Palmer stresses that further
research is needed to help practitioners understand the impact of online abuse
which can then be used to inform practice and policy. A particular area which
required improvement was identified in relation to the involvement of parents
and guardians in the process. Parents were often made to feel to blame for
their child’s abuse, despite many being unaware of the problem until it’s
discovery, and did not feel involved in the recovery process. This reinforces
the message put forward in the European Online Grooming Project (Webster,
2012), that parents desire a greater awareness of how their children are using
the internet and the associated risks, which will help enable them to protect
and support their children.

One particular area which can be seen to cause
interdisciplinary confusion is that of ‘sexting’ or self-created pornographic
material. The creation and distribution of indecent photographs of children
under the age of 16 is deemed as a criminal offence in the UK under the
Protection of Children Act 1987, although this was later amended to age 18
within the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This legislation also applies to pictures
created or distributed by those under the age of 18, unless certain
circumstances apply (such as when the involved parties are married). Responding
to situations involving self-created content poses a particular challenge for
child protection practitioners, with specific reference to the police. Palmer
(2015) found that police in some areas of the UK were criminalising children
who were found to be sending explicit pictures. Applying the law to minors in
this way was criticised, especially in cases where there was adult involvement,
for placing blame onto the child and attributing to them a greater level of
agency than is fair. Furthermore, it can be argued that the creation of such
images, especially within peer-to-peer relationships is a natural extension of
offline behaviour and can have positive outcomes as young people begin to
explore their sexuality (Hasinoff, 2012). It can also be said that preventing
the creation of such images, when taken consensually, is a breach of human
rights (Gillespie, 2013). Palmer stressed that the criminal justice system, at
all levels, needed to develop a better understanding of online sexual abuse and
how victims may appear to be complicit in their abuse. As with other aspects of
online sexual abuse and exploitation, there are a range of definitions employed
when discussing the issue of sexting, which makes understanding the scale of the
issue and the associated harm difficult.

How is the
risk of online sexual abuse and exploitation managed in an international
context?

Child protection matters are typically managed
on a local scale and practitioners face a unique challenge in the case of
online sexual abuse and exploitation due to its international nature. “One of
the biggest online threats to children and young people concerns the creation
and subsequent proliferation of child abuse imagery” (Reid, 2009, Pg217).
Similarly to grooming and other forms of sexual abuse, the creation of child
pornography is not a new phenomenon, with evidence existing as far back as
Victorian times (Martellozzo, 2013, Pg74), however it is one which has been
exaggerated by the development and increasingly accessibility of digital
technology. Legislating against child pornography is a difficult task and there
are a number of arguments surrounding the nature of certain types of child
pornography, including that which is a simulation or depiction of a non-real child,
or that where a legal adult is presented as a child, or images which contain
real children but where no crime is being committed. The Council of Europe
Convention on Cybercrime 2001 requires that Member Parties establish as a
criminal offence the ‘producing of child pornography for the purpose of its
distribution through a computer system’, possession and distribution of child
pornography, amongst other actions, are also defined as a criminal offence
within this document (Pg6). For this purpose, the term ‘child pornography’
includes ‘a person appearing to be a minor engaged in sexually explicit
conduct’ and ‘realistic images representing a minor engaged in sexually
explicit conduct’ although Parties are given the right to opt out of applying
this definition, and are permitted to deem only genuine images of a minor as
illegal content (Pg6-7). This highlights one of the issues faced by child
protection services; a difference in laws across the world, and even within
Europe, creates difficulties when attempting to prosecute those guilty of
online sexual offences and may hinder attempts to gain data for such purposes.
In addition to creating difficulties in practice, it can be argued that
underestimating the seriousness of viewing child pornography can create further
potential dangers and is detrimental to the child protection agenda. Viewing
such material can increase demand and, as a result, contributes to the cycle of
victimisation (Martellozzo, 2013).

Digital technology has also contributed to the
development of abuse-related tourism; whereby offenders are able to arrange and
purchase access to children via the internet for sexual purposes, or find
details of areas where sexual contact with children is tolerated. Section 114
of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 enables British authorities to prevent
offenders from travelling abroad to abuse children which helps to protect
children in areas where there is a lack of adequate legislation, or a
difference in cultural values. However, this legislation does not protect
children from abuse within their own countries and therefore further
development is needed in achieving an internationally agreed set of laws
regarding online child sexual abuse and the creation and spread of child
pornography.

In conclusion, it can be seen that there is a
general lack of knowledge regarding online dangers amongst young people, their
parents and carers, and the professional services who are expected to protect
against and respond to these dangers. This is, in part, due to the rapidly progressing
nature of the technology, and the view that this is still a relatively new area
of study, despite having been identified as an area of concern over two decades
ago. Research reviews undertaken by Ethel Quale (2016, 2017), Sonia Livingstone
and Peter Smith (2014), and Elly Hanson (2017) have identified a number of
shortcomings within the existing research base and stress the importance of
further research. However, it is also recognised that factors exist which make
conducting research in this area difficult. Such factors include, but are not
limited to, an unwillingness of victims to disclose details of their abuse, and
ethical issues related to discussing abuse with children and young people.
Nevertheless, further research is needed in a variety of areas in order to
fully understand the risks children and young people face online and any
associated harm, the existence of risk factors and protective factors which
affect a child’s vulnerability to online risk, and a further review of
international policy and practice to ensure that measures are in place to
protect children from online sexual abuse and exploitation, and that all
victims have access to high quality support.

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