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Turning the tide against online child sexual abuse

The internet has enabled the production and consumption of child sexual abuse material on an industrial scale. It has also created new opportunities for adults to sexually abuse and exploit children. The volume of online child sexual abuse offences is now so great that it has simply overwhelmed the ability of law enforcement agencies, internationally, to respond.

That’s according to a report published by a think-tank, the Police Foundation. It asks what can be done to help “turn the tide” on online Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). It suggests a focus on prevention, better targeting of the most serious forms of harm and investing in better police resources.

The report opens with the point that CSA is a high-volume crime; “The internet has lowered the barriers to engaging in all types of CSA offending.” As for policing response, by digital forensics and specialist or general investigators; as the caseload has risen, the proportion of recorded offences leading to a positive criminal justice outcome has fallen.

Among the report’s recommendations, it suggests that as a minimum, offenders should be mandated to attend an educational course at their own expense. As for ‘designing out’ such crime, the report admits that there are challenges in designing out online CSA through situational crime prevention measures, such as requiring online authentication, or carrying out surveillance.

On its own, law enforcement cannot be the answer, the report argues. The growing volume of reported crimes and moreover, the high volume that go unreported, outstrip the capacity of
the police to deliver a response equal to the scale of demand. The report concludes by calling for a shift in public policy; more use of tech and drawing on others to help prevent the offending by the many ‘low risk’ offenders, so that police can focus on the high risk ones. Among the suggestions for preventing offending, are raising awareness and delivering support to vulnerable children and young people; and ‘education and health interventions to divert would-be offenders away from criminality or prevent others from reoffending. There are undoubtedly serious and determined offenders for whom these strategies will never be enough, but the evidence indicates that a high proportion could be stopped at source or quickly diverted’.

For the 95-page report, visit the Police Foundation website.

Comment

National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Lead for Child Protection, Deputy Chief Constable Ian Critchley, said: “Online access by children and young people in the UK is engrained, with access afforded through a variety of digital devices. Our children are online, and therefore vulnerable. Even very young children use apps which give access to other internet users, and are therefore at risk of being exposed to the dark side of the online world. We can’t hide from this and must be preventative and proactive in tackling the issue.

“We know that Covid 19 has impacted our children’s experiences and interactions online. Lockdown restrictions resulted in increased numbers of offenders and victims being online, across different platforms, for longer periods of time. This resulted in the threat being amplified. The sheer volume of child sexual abuse material available on the open web provides opportunities for offenders to develop their sexual interest in children in an unregulated environment. The Online Safety Bill is therefore a much needed piece of legislation that will protect children from being harmed, groomed and exploited.

“Specialist investigators across the country work relentlessly on really tough and upsetting investigations every day. They do this to keep our children safe, and robustly pursue offenders. Despite this monumental effort, reports continue to rise. This report shines a spotlight on the essential work already being carried out and recognises the enormous impact of online child sexual abuse on society and therefore law enforcement.”


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