Deterring online child sexual abuse and exploitation: lessons from seven years of campaigning
31 March 2023
Online child sexual abuse (CSA), involving making, viewing and sharing sexual images of children as well as online child sexual grooming, is a huge and growing problem in the UK and around the world. In 2015 it was estimated that 100,000 people in the UK regularly viewed sexual images of children; a number that will be significantly higher now.
Children across the globe are harmed when these images are made, and further harmed by the repeated viewing of the images. Governments, agencies and others must work to identify and rescue victims, remove the images from the internet, bring to justice all involved in the crimes committed, and reduce demand for this material.
Arrests can’t be the only solution
The challenge we recognised in 2015 was the gulf between numbers arrested – around 4,500 people – and the 100,000 estimated to be involved. Since then we have pioneered a new approach to deter this vast number of people from viewing sexual images of children, targeting people who are offending but not yet arrested, and importantly those who are at risk but haven’t yet started.
To determine essential campaign messages, we undertook research with a number of men we worked with following their arrest for viewing sexual images of children. These messages included:
- raising awareness of UK law, that it is illegal to view, share or make sexual images of under-18s (also known in the UK as indecent images of children – IIOC)
- clarifying the harm done to children through making, viewing and sharing this material
- bluntly showing them some of the potential consequences to their families and to themselves of continuing their behaviour, especially following arrest (such as loss of family, friends and employment, as well as imprisonment and ending up on the sex offenders register)
Crucially, the research identified a need for these straight-forward warnings to be coupled with signposting to sources of help to address their behaviour and stop offending. We revised and re-launched an anonymous, self-directed online intervention (the Get Help website – previously called CROGA) to support help-seeking, which people can use alongside or separately from contact with our confidential Stop It Now! UK and Ireland helpline.
The research also found that these messages would be most effective when seen by men – who make up the majority of people who offend – multiple times and in their daily lives. This insight helped guide the campaign strategy to use a wide range of platforms to distribute messages and raise awareness, including conventional news media, social media, paid digital adverts, short films, partnerships with law enforcement and other statutory and voluntary organisations, and out of home adverts.
As well as this work with a broader reach, the campaign uses more targeted means to get messages to people closer to the point of offending. Working with technology companies including Google, the Internet Watch Foundation and MindGeek, we serve warning messages to people who attempt to search for illegal child sexual content or to visit websites on a banned list.
Does the campaign work?
The first campaign (2015/16) was independently evaluated and found to be effective in driving people to our helpline and self-help resources, in helping bring about self-reported changes in reducing or stopping risky or offending behaviour, as well as in understanding the law and consequences of offending.
The campaign has continued and developed each year since the pilot, with independent evaluation contributing to the planning and delivery of the next phase. Evaluations consistently show:
- the campaign is successful at driving people at risk of offending, or who have offended but are not yet arrested, to our helpline or online self-help resources
- people engaging with our resources following offending report positive behaviour and attitude changes.
This paper will describe the evolution of our deterrence work and the impact on our service users, including the extension of campaign messages and resources to stop online sexual grooming of children. The campaign also addresses questions, concerns and needs of families concerned about a loved one’s online sexual behaviour. Since 2015 our messages have reached millions of people contributing to our helpline receiving contact from nearly 5,000 people about online offending in 2022, and more than 250,000 people visiting our online self-help resources.
What should happen now?
Based on what we’ve learnt and our experience, we’ve made some recommendations about how to tackle online CSA.
Recommendations for the sector
- All online and technology companies should commit to making the internet a hostile place for offending and implement child safety by design.
- We have shown that some people who are at risk of offending are worried about their online behaviour and want to change. They must have somewhere to go to support them in stopping and changing their behaviour – quickly and for good – before they harm a child. Such support needs to be confidential.
- Linked to this, in wider society we must make it acceptable and commonplace for people who have offended or at risk of offending to reach out for help to stop.
Recommendations for running a similar campaign
- The success of our campaigning builds on a solid foundation in research as well as ongoing evaluation. Different approaches, messages and delivery may work in different settings and so understanding and testing these is key.