High prevalence of adverse childhood experiences among child sexual abuse material (CSAM) users
Every year, more children receive access to digital devices and the internet. Already in 2019, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reported that one in three children worldwide are internet users, and one third of all people online are under the age of 18 . With the lack of child safety mechanisms, increasingly more children are exposed to explicit and violent sexual material online. Evidently, the scope and impact of this phenomenon is yet to be fully understood.
Prevalence of early-age exposure to child sexual abuse material
In 2020, Protect Children launched the ReDirection project aiming to protect children via researching and rehabilitating online child sexual abuse offenders. Within the project, the NGO developed the ‘Help us to help you’ survey of anonymous CSAM users in the dark web. The scope was to ask respondents about their feelings, emotions and behaviours related to their use of CSAM. The survey results revealed that an alarming number of CSAM users were first exposed to the material as children themselves. 39% were under 13 and 31% were 14-17 years old. Moreover, 51% of respondents shared that their first exposure was accidental .
‘Help us to help you’ survey directed to CSAM users
Q1. When I first saw CSAM/illegal violent material I was… (N=13,116)
Q2. When I first saw CSAM/illegal violent material, it was… (N=11,377)
These findings are in line with similar research. Indeed, studies highlight the prevalence of exposure to violent sexual material in childhood in many countries. According to the Disrupting Harm study, up to 48% of children report accidental exposure to sexual content in different countries . Furthermore, the Children’s Commissioner for England reported that 79% of 18-21-year-olds who had seen pornography saw violent material at least once as children .
Impact of early age exposure to child sexual abuse material
Early age exposure to violent sexual material can be considered an adverse childhood experience – a potentially traumatic experience with long-lasting negative impact . Among possible negative effects of such exposure are lower academic or professional performance, physical and mental health problems, substance abuse and increased risk of revictimization. Evidence also demonstrates that watching violent sexual material early in life can increase the risk of harmful sexual behaviour in adulthood .
A few studies have found a significant association between viewing violent pornography before the age of 18 and displaying sexually aggressive behaviour [7, 8]. Evidence indicates that exposure to violent sexual material in adolescents increases the probability of aggressive sexual behaviour six times .
Preliminary results from Protect Children’s new research survey ‘Help us to know’ that collects data about patterns, characteristics, and trends of online crimes of sexual violence against children today revealed that 41% of respondents experienced very frequent emotional abuse and between 34-37% of child sexual abuse material users were subject to very frequent physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and physical neglect in their childhood . The data showed a high incidence of adverse childhood experiences among the population of child sexual abuse material users. There is an urgent need to further research the link between exposure to child sexual abuse material or violent pornography in childhood and perpetration of online or contact crimes of sexual violence against children. The new research is being conducted within Protect Children’s EU-funded Project 2KNOW.
‘Help us to know’ survey
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? (N=1,532)
What can we do?
To end all crimes of sexual violence against children, we must take a holistic approach. The EU-funded 2PS project unites specialists with diverse backgrounds from all over Europe in a mission to prevent harm to children before it occurs.
Exposure to CSAM in childhood is a form of sexual violence against children by itself. In fact, it is an adverse childhood experience that can impose long-lasting negative consequences on the victim. It can even result in sexually aggressive behaviour or further sexual offence against a child or an adult. Research has demonstrated that a considerable proportion of child sexual abuse material users were frequently subject to adverse childhood experiences.
By addressing the wide availability of CSAM, we prevent continuous revictimization of children already depicted in the material. As a consequence, this will prevent more children from being exposed to this violent material. One of the ways to tackle the issue of child sexual abuse material is to rehabilitate its users.
Protect Children is currently recruiting participants for Project Bridge to evaluate two new anonymous online programs for people who are concerned about their sexual thoughts or behaviours involving children, and people who view child sexual material.
2PS is currently working on developing the stepto.support platform that will help child sexual abuse material users to take steps to make positive change by providing a dynamic overview of services and therapy tailored to the user’s needs. The project actively promotes knowledge exchange between relevant stakeholders to increase efficacy of child sexual abuse prevention. Finally, 2PS is working to increase understanding of the vital role of prevention on societal level through communications campaign.