Last updated: 20.07.17

Staying a step ahead of internet-related child sexual abuse

The internet has doubtlessly opened up all sorts of new opportunities for children and young people that simply didn't exist 20 years ago - but inevitably, the flipside of this is that it has also exposed them to new dangers from which they need to be protected.

Perhaps the most troubling of these threats is that of child sexual abuse. Due to the open yet private nature of online communication, it can be easy for vulnerable children to fall prey to grooming or other forms of abuse without their parents or adult caregivers being aware of what's happening, or of what kind of danger might be present.

Due to the serious nature of this type of child abuse, the government is conducting research and taking several steps to try and make children safer online, and to give adults better insight into the scale and reality of the problem. However, there are also plenty of steps that those responsible for young people can take immediately to help prepare them for the dangers that exist in cyberspace.

Gaining a better understanding of the issue

The Research Project at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) recently launched a rapid evidence assessment to try to get a better handle on the degree to which online-facilitated child sexual abuse has become a prevalent problem in the UK.

The review is intended to assess the various measures that are available for quantifying the scale of the issue, including the number of identified perpetrators, victims and offences, as well as the volume of child sexual abuse material circulating online.

A number of different sources are set to be considered - including crime statistics, data held by law enforcement and partners such as the Internet Watch Foundation, survey findings and academic research - with the aim of determining how this information can inform future UK policy and practice when it comes to cracking down on internet abuse of vulnerable youngsters.

What actions can adults take now?

It will take several months for this assessment to be carried out, but, in the meantime, there are a number of steps that adults responsible for children can take immediately to guarantee the online safety of the young people in their charge.

The most important element of this is making sure that adults - whether they be parents, teachers, social workers or professional carers - are able to have frank and open conversations with children about their internet usage, during which they can discuss the potential risks and set reasonable limitations on how long children should spend online, and what kind of content they should be accessing.

Key topics of conversation should include the implications of sharing personal data or images online, the precautions that should be taken when forming connections via social media, and the right way for children to react if they receive a threatening or inappropriate message. Adults and kids should also familiarise themselves with the safety and privacy tools offered by major websites and online services, as this will ensure that neither group feels like they're in the dark about how to stay safe when interacting online.

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