Understanding why people offend online

The internet has changed how we talk to each other, share things, and do everyday tasks. We can connect with friends, plan trips, and quickly find information. But the internet made it easier to offend and view sexual images children.

It is important to understand how people find sexual images of children online, why they do it and what we can do about it.

The Triple ‘A’ engine (Cooper 1998)


Motivations for viewing sexual images of children

There are lots of reasons people give us for viewing sexual images of children. Here are some of the most common ones.

The cycle of online sexual offending

What we’ve learned is that once someone starts viewing illegal sexual images of children online, it can be hard to stop, even if they want to. In the moment the urge to commit an offence can become overpowering, and people don’t think of the longer-term consequences. Online sexual offending can become habitual or feel addictive, making it tough to stop, especially if someone hasn’t been caught or doesn’t have access to support.

Online offending is often seen as a cycle of behaviour. There is a driver for someone who wants to find escape, for example, from life stresses, low self-esteem, relationship problems, boredom, loneliness. They might use sexual content online to temporarily offer them escape. This can be adult pornography or adult chat rooms but can then escalate to illegal behaviour, for example, if they become desensitised or are looking for more excitement through extreme content.

After inappropriate or illegal behaviour online, people experience emotions like shame and guilt. To restore their self-esteem or mood, they might seek the escapism of more online sexual activity, which creates a cycle of behaviour.

Coping with Disclosure

Finding out that a loved one has offended online can be a huge shock. It’s essential to recognise that you could not have known and that people hide their offending out of shame and take steps to cover up their behaviour.

Recognising warning signs

It is possible to be more aware of the risk now you know someone has engaged in this behaviour. If you choose to support a loved one then it is crucial to discuss their motivation for offending and things that you can look out for. Examples like withdrawal, depression, going online more, and avoiding problems could mean it is time to talk to your loved one.

It is important as part of their relapse prevention plan that they have strategies to address these behaviours if you point out that you have seen some worrying change. Although you can help identify warning signs, only your loved one can address their behaviour.

If someone offended online, will they offend offline too?

Research is inconclusive about how often people who offend online will also offend offline. Studies looking at reoffending rates often show that people with convictions for online sexual offences have low reconviction rates. However, these studies often are small sample sizes and over relatively short periods of time.

It is hard for authorities that complete risk assessments to identify which people with a conviction will re-offend. If someone has offended in the past then they are higher risk of offending again than someone who has not engaged in the behaviour. It is important that loved ones recognise this increased risk especially if they have a protective parenting role.

If you have any concerns, questions, or would just like to talk about what you are going through, our non-judgemental helpline advisors are here to support you. You can stay anonymous and don’t have to give your real name or any contact details. If you’re not ready to speak to anyone yet, you can also use our live chat or send a secure email.

Find peer support on our Family and Friends Forum

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