Using live chat to help prevent child sexual abuse: reviewing our first year

25 March 2022

People worried about their own sexual thoughts, feelings and behaviour towards children will reach out for help when they know it’s available. Our Stop It Now! UK and Ireland helpline has shown this and over the last 20 years has supported more than 60,000 people.

In that time, we’ve expanded the ways that people can get in touch beyond our confidential helpline. We launched an anonymous email system and later online self-help websites to expand our reach.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw a need for a new route to help people. With funding from the Home Office, we launched a live chat service in September 2020, so that people could get support in a way that suited them.

This is the topic for the first in our series of Faithfull Papers – key insights and research from The Lucy Faithfull Foundation and Stop It Now! UK and Ireland. Find out more about our research or about our helpline. Sign up to receive updates from us. Download our research paper.

Why introduce a live chat?

  • During the Covid-19 pandemic, many safeguarding professionals shared a concern that the risk of child sexual abuse was increasing.

In the United Kingdom, during the first six months of lockdown, there was a 17% increase in recorded crimes involving online child sexual abuse, while Childline reported a threefold increase in demand for counselling sessions for intrafamilial child sexual abuse.

The pandemic increased the demand for our services. Between April to September 2020 compared to the same period in the previous year, we saw a 15% increase in answered calls.

  • There has been a steep increase in the use of the anonymous email system since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Between April to September 2020 compared to the same period in the previous year, we saw a 52% increase in emails.

This increase was attributed to the effects of imposed lockdowns, with people often isolating with other members of their households, which made it difficult for them to call the helpline in private. This highlighted a need for anonymous and confidential online support services that would nonetheless deliver immediate, responsive support.

Our anonymous email service potentially appeals to individuals who worry the helpline is not confidential. Advisors have anecdotally reported that some service users find emailing Stop It Now! less daunting than calling the helpline.

  • Compared with the telephone helpline service, the anonymous email system sees greater proportionate use by young people and also by people at risk of offending who haven’t been arrested.

Since the launch of the anonymous email system, 194 new contacts aged under 18 have emailed LFF, compared to 130 new contacts aged under 18 years who have called the helpline. During lockdown, our new callers and emailers aged under 18 years old increased by 55% and 67% respectively compared to the same period in the previous year.

A live chat service aimed to give an extra layer of privacy and anonymity while allowing real-time, dynamic communication and support, similar to the helpline (and contrary to the email service, which entails delays in the exchange of emails).

Evaluation of the first year of the live chat

  • During the first year of the service, we received 859 chats from 576 service users.

The live chat service was found to be predominantly used by male adults concerned about their own behaviour (55%). A considerable number of individuals using the live chat service were adults concerned about another person’s thoughts or behaviour (22%).

  • The live chat service appears to be favoured by two key groups of service users when compared to the telephone helpline: people aged 21 or younger and people concerned about their sexual thoughts or behaviour who are not arrested. 

While the chat service attracted users of all ages, it was primarily used by individuals aged 30 to 39 years old. The service also proved particularly attractive to people aged under 21, especially when compared to the helpline users (18% vs. 6% respectively). Online support services might therefore be critical for attracting this population

While over half of chatters concerned about their own thoughts or behaviour were known to the police, a considerable number had not been arrested (41%). This finding indicates the value of the service in providing preventative support to un-arrested individuals at risk of offending, who might not otherwise be motivated or capable to manage their behaviour. It is interesting to contrast this with helpline users concerned about their own thoughts or behaviour, only 18% of whom had not been arrested. This suggests that the live chat might be perceived as a more secure and comfortable way of seeking support than the helpline, assumed to afford greater anonymity.

  • Among service users who provided feedback on the live chat service, 97% reported a positive experience. 

The overwhelming majority of service users providing feedback indicated a positive experience, and the service was perceived as non-judgemental, supportive of individuals’ efforts for change and helpful in signposting them to relevant resources. This feedback was also reflected in live chat advisors’ views: they saw the live chat as a positive service for clients.

  • Advisors dealt with a wide variety of chats, from questions relating to navigating the Stop It Now! UK and Ireland website, to in-depth support and advice.

The live chat service showed greater time efficiency than the helpline during both the pilot and the first-year evaluation, with chat advisors dedicating more time to supporting service users and requiring less administrative time than helpline advisors. The automatic generation of live chat transcripts can be easily copied into the database/case recording system, requiring no note-taking or typing up of notes by advisors. Entering responses in the live chat is, however, more time-consuming than communication on the phone. Although direct comparisons between the two mediums might not be fully meaningful, evaluation data indicate that it is possible to complete a live chat discussion in a similar amount of time to a helpline discussion.

What now?

We’ve learnt a lot from our first year and continue to make improvements and try new things. We’ve changed opening hours to try to give users more choice, and we’re investing in training and recruiting advisors.

In the future, the live chat should be evaluated for its effectiveness in supporting the full range of service user groups that contact Stop It Now! UK and Ireland, helping them prevent CSA. This will help us tailor and target our services to the audiences most likely to use them and inform best practices in the prevention of CSA.


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