The NSPCC published a report this month detailing the challenges facing the UK in tackling online child sex abuse images.

Child sexual abuse images are described as a visual record of the sexual abuse of a child and can include images, photographs, pseudo-photographs, animations, drawings, tracings, videos and films.

In the UK it is illegal to possess, distribute or produce child sexual abuse images. Downloading an image is treated as possession for sentencing purposes in the UK.

Findings of the NSPCC report

The report states that the sharing of photographs and images is a daily occurrence for many people but the increased speed and ease of sharing imagery has brought concerns about the generation and sharing of sexual imagery. The report found that:

  • In the past five years, the police have recorded a doubling in the number of people viewing child sexual abuse images under the Obscene Publications Act, reaching a total of 8,745 in 2015.
  • In 2013 it was suggested that around 50,000 UK-based individuals were involved in downloading and sharing indecent images of children.
  • This year, the National Police Chief’s Council said they feared that up to 100,000 people have viewed indecent images of children online.
  • In 2015 the Internet Watch Foundation, a UK charity through which people can report illegal content, removed 68,092 URLs hosting child sexual abuse imagery.

Their evidence suggests that there are UK viewers of “teen” pornography online and that there is a journey from viewing pornography with younger-looking models progressing to viewing of illegal child sexual abuse images. The British Board of Film Classification guidelines state that material (including dialogue) which may encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity, which may include adults role-playing as children or teenagers, is unacceptable. However, video content distributed over the internet is dealt with through a voluntary system of self-regulation. This loophole needs to be addressed.

Recommendations of the NSPCC report

Whilst positive work is already being done in the UK and internationally between industry, government, law enforcement and the third party sector, the report calls for further research on the scale of the problem together with a better understanding and a focus on what can be done to prevent offences occurring.

The report concludes that the lack of internet regulation is fuelling the demand for child sexual abuse images. There is a clear call for the imbalance to be resolved between how society considers child sexual abuse material in the online world versus that of the offline world. Any material that depicts adults engaging in role-play as children for the sexual gratification of other adults is illegal offline and must also be made illegal online.

The NSPCC questions whether such a serious issue should be dealt with by a voluntary system of self-regulation and they have highlighted the need for a national conversation about this important issue.

The internet can be a force for good and can make a valuable contribution to our learning and development. However, there is undoubtedly more that can be done to ensure the safety of children online. I hope this report encourages better online regulation and leads to an increasing focus on preventative solutions to stop criminal offences from occurring.