A new report launched today (Monday 11 December), looking at the significant impact of online child sexual abuse in the UK, will call for swift action to stem a dramatic increase in online abuse cases seen over recent years.

The report ‘Everyone deserves to be happy and safe’, authored by researchers from our Department of Psychology and colleagues at the University of Birmingham, commissioned by the NSPCC, explores the experiences of a sample of young people caught up in technology-assisted sexual abuse. Such abuse could involve using webcams and smart phones, uploading and sharing images online and via social media platforms such as Facebook or Instant Messenger.

The three-year study involved detailed interviews and questionnaires with victims aged mostly 17-19, as well as 52 professionals working with young people. Its findings point to a general lack of awareness about the nature and seriousness of sexual abuse involving technology.

Between 2014 and 2016, the NSPCC’s Childline Service highlighted a 250% rise in calls from young people about online abuse. This occurred in tandem with a rapid increase in the use of technology in sexual abuse of young people seen over the past decade. For this study half of the young people who took part in either the survey or questionnaire had experienced some degree of technology-assisted abuse.

Abusive strategies

These young people described how, when digital technology was part of their abuse, it enabled or facilitated abusive strategies such as emotional blackmail, constant control, and dominance of the night-time space. For many, the person who abused them was a peer – a boyfriend, friend, or friend of a friend. One young person described someone she knew emotionally blackmailing her into sadistic role-play via messages.

When abuse contained a digital dimension, young people described how this could complicate its impact, for example leading to fears about images circulating online, and increasing self-blame and fear of blame. But it also found that the dynamics of this abuse and its impact are often not understood by family members and professionals. Importantly, the research found that when young people had supportive family relationships, they reported significantly higher levels of self-esteem and fewer psychological difficulties.

The report’s authors now call for a range of actions to be taken to better safeguard and support young people, including new awareness-raising campaigns in schools and on social media to help young people recognise their rights. They also recommend measures to assist parents, families and peers to empower them to take preventative steps to promote disclosure and recovery.

New training and innovations to recognise and tackle online abuse

For professionals, the authors argue for training to recognise how online abuse complicates the experience and impact of abuse. They suggest industry could invest further to develop innovative means to tackle technology assisted abuse, which should include providing young people with the tools to have their images removed across mainstream platforms.

Lead researcher, Dr Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis from the Department of Psychology explained: “It is important that professionals and families understand the seriousness of abuse that is enabled via technology, the consequences for victims and that this can occur at very young ages. To extend this research and broaden the conclusions we can draw, we now want to enable younger people, males and those from different ethnic backgrounds to have more of a voice in research.”

Dr Elly Hanson, an independent Clinical Psychologist and researcher on the project added: “Nearly all the young people we spoke to described blaming themselves for the abuse and many said that others blamed them or minimised what they had been through. I hope that increased understanding across society will lead to more young people receiving the support and validation from their family, schools, and others that they deserve and need.

“It’s also important to add that the thing young people most frequently said they wanted was education focussed on relationship dynamics, skills, and principles – provided at a young age. This would make a huge positive impact.”

Pat Branigan, Development & Impact Manager at the NSPCC, said: “No issue is more pressing for contemporary child protection than the role of the internet in facilitating child sexual abuse. We commissioned this exploratory research to better understand how young people who have experienced technology assisted sexual abuse are impacted by it, with an important focus on their voices and perspectives.

“The findings will help shape our future recovery work with the victims of online child sexual abuse and our call for online safety to be an integrated part of future good quality PHSE and RSE school programmes.”

Research details:

  • 16 young people were interviewed (10 of whom had experienced technology-assisted abuse)
  • 30 young people completed questionnaires focused on the impact of abuse (13 of whom had experienced technology-assisted abuse)
  • 52 people in professions dealing with sexual abuse (e.g. social work or law enforcement) completed surveys

Read Pat Branigan's Guardian feature 'Why online child sexual abuse must be taken more seriously'

The report is launched Monday 11 December at the University of Bath in London office.