New international report shows more public and industry engagement, and earlier intervention, needed to prevent child sexual offending online

A new report involving over 2,000 experts in online child sex offending has made strong recommendations on how to better prevent the growing problem of child sexual offending on the internet.

The report, put together by the International Working Group for the Prevention of Online Sex Offending (IWG_OSO), features input from the National Crime Agency, the NSPCC and the University of Plymouth.

It highlights that more public engagement is needed to raise awareness of online sexual offending behaviour, along with closer collaboration between behavioural experts and the online industry, a better balance between punishment and early intervention with potential offenders, and increased primary prevention addressing the underlying causes of offending.

The recommendations come amid the group’s concerns about ‘epidemic levels’ of child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) online.

The number of UK-related case referrals received by the National Crime Agency from the online industry almost trebled between 2016 and 2018 (113,948 reports in 2018 compared with 43,072 in 2016).

In the year 2018 alone, the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 18.4 million referrals of suspected online child sex offending cases from around the world.

The report, entitled Best Practice in the Management of Online Sex Offending, is being officially launched on Friday 21 June at the NSPCC headquarters in London, and recommends:

  • Closer collaboration between behavioural experts and the online industry: Experts involved in researching, treating and preventing online child sex offending behaviour should work more closely with the online industry to help design barriers to the commission of sexual offences online, and so prevent this crime from occurring. This might include collaborative work to design-out an offender’s ability to produce, share and access CSEM in online platforms and services involved in these offences, as well as further expansion of deterrence messages and splash pages into pre-offending locations online.
  • Increasing public engagement with the problem of online child sex offending behaviour: Through, for example, media-supported public awareness campaigns, to increase public understanding of the problem of online child sexual offending behaviour, and to reduce the fear and stigma involved for people who wish to come forward and seek help to manage their pre-offending sexual interest in children.
  • Better balancing efforts to prosecute and punish online sex offenders with earlier intervention methods to prevent sexual offences occurring – particularly for people with a pre-offending sexual interest in children: For example, an expansion of anonymous helplines and online deterrence campaigns targeting potential online child sex offenders, as well as greater therapeutic provision in the community.

The IWG_OSO was set up in 2014 with the support of the International Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders. Its members and consultees include experts in online child sexual offending behaviours, from law enforcement, academia, children’s charities, offender support services, therapeutic providers and the online industry.  

Report co-author Dr Maggie Brennan, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Plymouth, said:

“Online child sexual offending is now endemic in our society. It is marring the lives of children, families and communities – as well as those with a sexual interest in children who could be prevented from committing an offence against a child.

“In order to meaningfully protect children and society from online child sex offending, we urgently need to step up our efforts to stop offending behaviour before it starts – we need to focus on ways to better prevent this crime. Our report highlights a series of strategies to achieve better prevention of online child sexual offending behaviour, which have been developed in consultation with approximately 2,000 international experts in the area.”

Juliet Grayson, Chair of StopSO: The Specialist Treatment Organisation for Perpetrators and Survivors of Sexual Offences said:

"This report comes at a time when child sexual exploitation has reached epidemic proportions, and highlights much needed solutions. The consequences of child sexual offending are devastating and lifelong for the victims.

“Publicity campaigns that raise awareness, reduce fear and stigma, and encourage people with a sexual interest in children to come forward to ask for help before committing an offence, are essential. Now that early interventions exist in the UK, it is vital that we ensure that everyone knows where to turn for help. This can, and does, prevent the first crime from happening. StopSO has had over 3,000 requests from people wanting help to control their sexual behaviour, and over 60 per cent of these have come from people with a sexual interest in children."

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