This article discusses child sexual abuse and online sexual abuse.

I have experienced or witnessed something traumatic.

Internet watchdog, Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), found that there has been a staggering ‘three-fold’ increase in online child sexual abuse over the past two years. The watchdog investigated 361,000 reports of material possibly linked to online child sexual abuse in 2021, with the greatest increase being of imagery involving seven to 10-year-olds.

“In 2021, the IWF investigated a record 361,000 reports. Of these, 252,000 URLs were confirmed to contain images or videos of child sexual abuse.”

IWF warn that personal devices of young children can be an “open door”, giving predators online access to children who might be on their own, unsupervised in their bedrooms. IWF speculate that the increase in young children being targeted might be due to national lockdowns, meaning more and more young people were spending much of their time online.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF said on the issue:

“Children are being targeted, approached, groomed and abused by criminals on an industrial scale. So often, this sexual abuse is happening in children’s bedrooms in family homes, with parents being wholly unaware of what is being done to their children by strangers with an internet connection.”

Speaking on how this kind of online abuse then feeds into the market of child exploitation, she said, “We then see how this content is shared repeatedly across many websites, creating a despicable market place for this material. This is what we tackle on a global scale in partnership with internet companies, law enforcement bodies, and other hotlines around the world.”

IWF work with local authorities to assess, locate and remove harmful and exploitative content from the internet that often stems from what they call ‘self-generated child sexual abuse images’. This is usually as a result of a young person or child being groomed online, and then persuaded to share images of themselves with that person.

As well as the recent government campaign, IWF have launched their own campaign, the ‘Self-generated’ child sexual abuse prevention campaign’. The IWF campaign sets out ways in which parents and people around children can talk to their children about the dangers of online sexual abuse, you can read more about that here.

The government campaign, launching this week, ‘Stop Abuse Together’ is partly in response to this growing concern. The campaign homepage signposts a visitor to different sections such as ‘Spot the signs’, ‘Speak to your child’, ‘Further support and advice’ with a subsection of ‘I’m under 18: I’m worried something’s happened to me or someone I know’ and ‘I’m an adult: something happened to me when I was younger’.

The campaign homepage also points professionals to essential e-learning, relevant information and training for how this relates to workplaces and practice and what professionals can do to help the cause.

Child welfare charity, Barardos has commented on the campaign, expressing their support for its message. Interim Co-CEO of Barnardos, Lynn Perry MBE has said:

“Barnardo’s has been supporting children who have been sexually abused for decades, and we see first-hand how easily they can slip through the net. Too often victims go unidentified and unsupported, for weeks, months, or even years. It is vital that when there is a suspicion of child sexual abuse, it is reported as quickly as possible.”

“We hope that the Stop Abuse Together campaign empowers parents and carers to recognise the risks online, know where to get help if they suspect a child is being abused, and to have challenging conversations with their children about their activities on and offline.”

A starting point

Abuse in childhood whether that be sexual or physical, is one of the main factors for developing a whole host of mental health problems as an adult. From trauma disorders, dissociative disorders, personality disorders and depression, the earlier children are supported and identified as survivors and victims the better. 

As well as hopefully preventing some instances of abuse from ever happening through education and a trusting, open dialogue between children and the adults around them.

As such, this campaign from the UK government is a step in the right direction, to begin to bring something out of the shadows we first must shine a light on it and understand and accept just how commonplace experiences of childhood abuse are in our society.

However, there must be the funding and practical service increases to bolster this shift. On the government campaign site, when following the signposting links through to the ‘get support’ pages, the campaign lists charities such as Survivors Trust, Imkaan and the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC). Many of these organisations are already overstretched and their local community efforts are clogged with long waiting lists for therapy and counselling.

To address the devastating effect that childhood abuse can have on a person’s mental health, well defined and clear trauma pathways within the NHS, specifically designed for abuse survivors are essential.

If you are concerned about a child, you can call NSPCC on 0808 800 5000. Or you can submit at online form, or email them, you can find more info here.

If you're a child or young person needing support or are worried about something you have experienced, you can call NSPCC on their childline on 0800 1111, they also provide 1-2-1 online chats, more info here