The digital world and sexual offending

Mia Scally, Dr Jeffrey DeMarco and Professor Julia Davidson from the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University reflect on the recent Digital World & Sexual Offending: Policing, Cooperation & Victimisation conference.

Experts and researchers alike congregated recently at the Institute of Child Health in central London to discuss and debate a crucial, contemporary and central issue across society: that of online child sexual abuse (CSA).

For the past two years, an international and multidisciplinary team led by Professor Julia Davidson and the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University has been exploring the evidence base regarding offender and victim behaviour online, with an aim to develop (and understand) models of best practice for policing and industry in dealing with online childhood sexual abuse, and assist with any collaboration in countering these heinous crimes.

The investigation culminated with the one-day conference where key stakeholders in protecting youth online, including Chief Constable Simon Bailey, Cathal Delaney (Focal Point Twins, Europol), John Carr OBE and Julian Millan (Interpol) providing detailed talks on the various issues faced by young people, schools, charities, industry and law enforcement in policing the internet. Additionally, three panels presented key themes, findings and information in the area of online protection: two by the project team and one consisting of experts from a range of disciplines.

Photo by Eric Norris (CC BY 2.0)

Photo by Eric Norris (CC BY 2.0)

Policing and collaboration: what we know from ISEC

Panel 1 delivered the project findings linked to policing and collaboration from UK, Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands. Data was collected using surveys and interviews with police, applying a mixed methods approach. The main findings were:

  • Online CSA is a worldwide pervasive issue that is difficult to deal with as a result of differing legislation, police resources and the industry need to balance privacy with safety;
  • There are cross-cultural differences in training when it comes to UK, Italy and Northern Ireland, with many police officers wanting regular and specific training when it comes to online CSA;
  • There are examples of good practice when it comes to collaboration between industry/NGO’s and the police forces, however this could be strengthened;
  • Specialist police forces are needed for this type of crime and are used more in some countries than others, however there is a need to provide training that is more specific for frontline officers that may come into contact with this type of crime initially.

Victimisation of risk online: what we know from ISEC

Panel two focused on the second elements of the project, which included findings from UK, Italy and Ireland associated with a retrospective analysis of young adult’s online risk and behaviours in their adolescent years. The data was collected using surveys and depth-interviews with self-referred young adults. The main findings were:

  •  There were cross-cultural differences in solicitation, however those that were solicited were predominantly female and most likely to be solicited by an adult (as opposed to another adolescent);
  • Young people engaging in risky behaviour online were more likely to be solicited than those that did not. Other risk factors include alcohol consumption, offline bullying and sexual orientation;
  • Young people did not often seek help from a trusted adult, choosing to confide in a friend instead. Young people were more likely to confide in a parent if their parents asked them about their internet use.

The experts’ response

The expert panel, composed of Cathal Delaney (Europol), Tink Palmer (Marie Collins Foundation), John Brown (NSPCC), Annie Mullins (Trust and Safety Group) and David Miles (Independent), and chaired by the project Principal Investigator Professor Julia Davidson focused on the relevance and utility of the findings presented from the research consortium.

There was a firm consensus that the internet, if used safely, can be a useful instrument for young people in navigating their formative and emerging adulthood years. As with anything in our lives, risks are always present, and knowing how to recognise and manages risks online does not mean engaging in moral panics about the threat and danger of online childhood sexual abuse.

Focusing on improving and ameliorating resources, particular questions need to be posed within education (Should parents be doing more? Are schools equipped to deal with online issues?); the normalisation of sexting and solicitations online (What does society contribute in terms of the sexualisation of young girls? How do we deal with sexting?); and the role of industry in protecting users online (Should industry be doing more to create a safe platform for young people? What are the consequences of filtering and blocking software for young people, as well as the advantages?). As should be clear, the difficulty and vastness of the issues deliberated were essential in catalysing the integration of the research into the current narratives surrounding child online protection.

In summary, the conference brought together academics, law enforcement, the third and corporate sector, resulting in an engaging and informative day of discussions regarding project findings and collaborative practice. It created an opportunity for critical evaluation and impact, attempting to provide answers to a number of key global policy questions about the importance of understanding and safeguarding cyberspace. Most importantly, the conference permitted an opportunity for the identification of gaps and next steps in the process of preventing and intervening in online childhood sexual abuse, with the possibility for future collaboration and partnerships between industry members, NGOs, police and academics. It is clear from the project findings that this kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration is deeply wanted and needed by all. It is only with this kind of engagement and deliberation  that society will be able to tackle the issues of online safety accurately, successfully and innovatively.

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