You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience and security.

8 November 2017
By Rebecca Avery

New NSPCC Research: Impact of online and offline child sexual abuse: "Everyone deserves to be happy and safe"

The NSPCC have published findings of a study undertaken by researchers into the effects of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) carried out using online or digital technologies (technology-assisted CSA, or TA-CSA).  The research team carried out interviews and questionnaires with young people aged 15-19 and a range of professionals. The full report; “Everyone deserves to be happy and safe” A mixed methods study exploring how online and offline child sexual abuse impact young people and how professionals respond to it” (November 2017) can be accessed here.

Key findings

Characteristics of TA-CSA

  • Technology can give perpetrators of abuse easier access to young people.
  • The online environment can hide abusive dynamics that would be more obvious in face to face relationships.
  • Being unable to escape from an abusive person because they are in frequent contact through technology can make young people feel powerless.
  • Online devices enable perpetrators of abuse to communicate with young people at night-time, when they're at home, and to control their "night-time space".
  • A key feature of TA-CSA is threatening to share sexual images of the young people with their friends and family. This is a powerful tool used by perpetrators to stop young people from speaking out and perpetrators may also pressure young people into complying with sexual requests online.
  • The technological dimension can prevent some young people from recognising their experiences as abuse.

The impact of TA-CSA

The study found that TA-CSA has as much impact on a child as offline CSA. The young people interviewed discussed how being sexually abused had affected them. They experienced:
  • self-blame
  • flashbacks or intrusive thoughts
  • depression and low self-esteem
  • nightmares and trouble sleeping
  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • self-harm
  • problems at school, such as difficulty keeping up with work or behavioural problems.
Sometimes, the use of technology in CSA caused additional psychological effects.
  • Fear of sexual images being shared online or being viewed in the future.
  • Being filmed led some young people to feel uncomfortable around cameras.
  • Young people who had been in constant contact with the person who abused them via digital technology could become very fatigued – this was especially the case if they were in contact at night-time.
  • Some of the young people interviewed felt that the initial abuse had made them more vulnerable to further abuse by sexualising them, leading them to drink heavily or take risks or reducing their sense of self-worth and confidence.
  • A high proportion of young people blamed themselves for the abuse. This appeared to be triggered or made worse by unsupportive approaches from school, peers and family.

Professionals' responses to TA-CSA

  • While the research found that online child sexual abuse had the same impact as offline sexual abuse, professionals perceived online abuse to be less impactful and less of an immediate concern than offline abuse.
  • A lack of knowledge and understandings about this form of sexual abuse can lead to victims being blamed for it and its impact being minimised.
  • Professionals aren't always clear what is meant by 'online abuse' and may not realise the full range of technologies that can be used to facilitate CSA.
  • Professional may think abuse that happens online and offline are entirely separate, without understanding that the two can be entwined. This could mean they don't ask young people about the involvement of technology in abuse nor offer them appropriate support after experiencing TA-CSA.
  • Some professionals felt that children who experienced CSA offline are less likely to be blamed or stigmatised than those who experience TA-CSA.

Key points for Education

No young person interviewed received adequate relationships education at school prior to the abuse. Some young people reported that their school was unsupportive following the abuse, not recognising the seriousness of the abuse and its impact, and at times blaming and being insufficiently protective. A finding from the interviews with young people was that online safety education offered specifically to young people who experienced online abuse can feel blaming and stigmatising and arguably may also not always be necessary. While it can play an important role in preventing abuse, if it is to be useful rather than harmful, online safety education should be nuanced and provided to all young people early on.

Key recommendations from the researchers

  • Use of the term ‘technology-assisted child sexual abuse’ (TA-CSA) should generally be used instead of ‘online child sexual abuse’.
  • Awareness-raising campaigns should focus on: a) preventing sexual abuse by helping young people recognise their rights and the principles of healthy relationships; b) helping young people who are experiencing abuse to tell and seek help; c) helping parents, families and peers take preventative steps and promote disclosure and recovery.
  • Safeguarding training for all professionals who work with children and young people should include: a) the dynamics and impact of different forms of abuse, including technology-assisted sexual abuse; b) the types of support and response that children and young people need following it (beyond protection).
  • Industry should further invest in innovative means of tackling technology-assisted abuse, so that abuse can no longer be so easily assisted by technology.
  • A new curriculum for Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) should be developed. This should ensure that the principles and skills involved in positive relationships are taught early and revisited regularly.
    • ‘Online safety’ education should be incorporated into this and not offered as a stand-alone.
    • Children and young people should be involved as active participants in developing their school or college’s prevention and intervention approach.
  • Law enforcement should undergo regular training and there should be clear routes for redress when victims do not receive these basic standards of service.
  • Timely and appropriate therapeutic support should be offered to all children who have experienced abuse, and their families – not just when experiencing mental health difficulty.

Young people's advice to professionals

  • Provide good education on healthy relationships, abuse and consent from a young age
  • Take time to understand the impact of abuse better, notice the signs of abuse and engage in purposeful conversations with young people about it
  • Recognise the seriousness and existence of sexual abuse, including technology-assisted
  • Increase support and make it more accessible and increase sensitive and effective therapy
  • Improve the approach of law enforcement