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Communication key to stopping ‘self-generated’ child sexual abuse material, says Anglia Ruskin University report

Communication is the key to stopping ‘self-generated’ child sexual abuse material, says a report that focuses on girls aged between 11 and 13 years old.

It was commissioned by the Home Office and carried out by experts at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), using data from the Histon-based Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)

Professor Samantha Lundrigan, of ARU
Professor Samantha Lundrigan, of ARU

Research from ARU’s Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER) shows that two-way communication, as well as careful monitoring, is the most effective way to prepare girls to handle online requests for indecent images.

The research draws on survey results that were conducted following a public awareness campaign run by the IWF in 2021.

The charity is responsible for finding and removing images and videos of child sexual abuse from the internet. The campaign aimed to build resilience among girls, and their parents, around online requests for sexual imagery.

‘Self-generated’* child sexual abuse content is created using webcams on tablets, smartphones or other tech devices, predominantly in children’s own homes, and without the abuser present.

The criminal material is then shared online via a growing number of platforms. In many cases, children are groomed, deceived or extorted by online predators into producing and sharing the sexual images or videos of themselves.

From 2020 to 2021, there was a 168 per cent increase in the proportion of webpages displaying self-generated imagery found by the IWF.

More than 80 per cent of those webpages (147,188 out of 182,281) included images and videos of girls aged 11 to 13.

This trend has continued. Data from 2022 show that the majority (64 per cent) of the 199,363 webpages containing self-generated videos and images removed by the IWF featured girls in this age group.

The report says parents and carers should not wait for the “right time” to talk to their children, as broaching the issue is unlikely to backfire, and researchers recommend that it is “better to talk than not”.

More than 3,000 survey answers were considered from both parents/carers and their daughters, girls aged 11 to 13.

The survey participants, not known to be victims of online child sexual exploitation themselves, were asked questions about the IWF public awareness campaign, and how they thought they would deal with requests for indecent images.

Internet Watch Foundation chief executive Susie Hargreaves. Picture: Keith Heppell.
Internet Watch Foundation chief executive Susie Hargreaves. Picture: Keith Heppell.

Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said: “The rise of self-generated child sexual abuse content is alarming and complex.

“It is vital that we equip parents and children with the knowledge to protect themselves and others online without delay.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, many children became used to occupying themselves on the internet and sadly this means they have become the targets of predators.

“These criminals cajole and blackmail children into performing on camera, producing sexual imagery which is often distributed widely afterwards.

“Understanding more about self-generated material is vital, and the valuable insights from this study will help the IWF plan preventative campaigns aimed at helping to protect all children from predators online.”

Prof Sam Lundrigan, director of the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region at ARU, said: “It’s extremely positive that organisations such as the IWF are developing and exploring ways to raise awareness of and resilience to the threat of online sexual abuse.

“It’s critical, however, that we use insight and evidence to get these messages right. This is where research can help, and our team were able to analyse direct feedback from the target audience who needs to hear these messages.

“The responses were encouraging in the number of young people and parents who want to be well informed on this serious issue, and we now have an evidence base to work on as we develop the best possible ways of helping to keep young people safe.

“Regrettably, we cannot eradicate the threat of online abuse, but we can do everything in our power to help keep children and young people safe online.”

The report also found that the two-pronged approach of the IWF campaign – targeting children and parents/carers – was effective and recommended that future prevention campaigns and interventions should follow a similar approach.

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