Editors Picks Health & wellbeing Social commentary

Safeguarding children in the metaverse

Top academic experts debated the challenges with addressing online safety in the metaverse – as part of ongoing research designed to protect young people in virtual worlds

The concept of the metaverse has gained significant attention in recent years, promising digital worlds where users can interact, learn, create, and explore. As underlying technologies like generative AI, haptic suits and eye-tracking evolve, it becomes crucial to examine the impact of the metaverse on children’s experiences and address the concerns surrounding their online safety. Indeed, the VIRRAC (Virtual Reality Risks Against Children) research project, funded by REPHRAIN the national research centre on privacy, harm and adversarial influence online, aims to do this. It is led by Professor Julia Davidson OBE, Director of the Institute of Connected Communities (University of East London) and Dr Elena Martellozzo, Associate Director at the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS, Middlesex University), supported by Paula Bradbury, Dr Ruby Farr and Boglarka Meggyesfalvi In a recent roundtable discussion, chaired by Nina Jane-Patel, high-profile experts from various fields accepted our invitation and came together to share their insights and perspectives on this topic as part of the research project.

Embracing the Positive Aspects

Experts highlighted several benefits of the emerging technologies’ transformative potential, particularly of immersive experiences for children. Unlike traditional online and console platforms, being in the metaverse enables physically engaging experiences, approximating real-world social cues and interactions. The sense of embodiment offered by digital worlds makes them more inclusive, creating opportunities for neurodiverse individuals (autism spectrum disorder ASD) and those living with disabilities as it removes barriers to communication and fosters connection with others.

Challenges in Online Safety for Children

However, this new frontier is not without its risks. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to cyber bullying and harassment within digital environments. Although this is not a new issue, it is amplified within this immersive world designed to have maximum impact on users, which lacks consistent monitoring and reporting protocols/safety standards. The high level of anonymity encourages a subset of users to behave abusively towards others, creating unsafe spaces in which conflicts can accelerate quickly without any adequate guardian to intervene.

Griefing, a form of online harassment where users exploit game mechanics to intentionally upset others, is a prevalent issue. Other disturbing behaviours include the misuse of creative freedom to spread hateful messages and the initiation of virtual sexual assault incidents. Such instances can be particularly traumatic due to the high level of perceptual realism and embodiment associated with this technology. Sextortion, a form of blackmail in which sex acts are demanded in exchange for certain favours, including the reception of digital assets children often thrive for, is a growing concern too.

Moreover, age verification remains a challenge in virtual platforms, which often results in children accessing inappropriate content, entering 18+ spaces, or interacting with adults in ways they shouldn’t. Incidents have been reported when children as young as 9 years-old were abused in virtual private rooms, or taught gang language. During the roundtable, the importance of collaboration between platform providers was stressed, as well as the implementation of safety-by-design, and the need to provide caregivers and educators with comprehensive safety guidelines. Parents can find it challenging to oversee and understand what is happening with children in the VR headsets, so academics Dr Mohamed Khamis, Dr Mark McGill, and Cristina Fiani from the University of Glasgow are working to address the need to develop effective tools for safeguarding.  Tackling these risks means technology companies, experts, caregivers and regulators have to work together.

Impacts on Childhood Development

The integration of new technology into the fabric of our lives raises critical and mostly unanswered questions about its impact on child development. As Catherine Knibbs, an online harms and cybertrauma expert highlighted, every research ‘up until recently have all been pre-Internet and none of it has taken into account immersive technologies’. Children under the age of seven are typically learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Spending time in the 3D digital world at such a young age could lead to unforeseen effects on their cognitive development (processes of thinking and reasoning) and neuroplasticity (capacity for brain to rewire and change), including yet unrecognised triggers for imagination/witness trauma. Moreover, there is growing concern about the possible physical harm that prolonged use of VR headsets might inflict on developing eyesight.

These headsets, equipped with a variety of biometric sensors, collect a staggering amount of personal data such as motion or heartbeat data, that can provide unique insights into the users’ physical and mental state. Ensuring that this data is used responsibly, and at the minimum, especially when children are involved, should be a priority. The stakes are high, and understanding how to navigate this new reality safely, and setting age-limits responsibly, based on scientific evidence and ethical considerations is crucial for our children’s present and future well-being.

Unmasking the Vulnerabilities

Children with special education needs, those who have experienced (early life) trauma, have attachment difficulties, or those on the neurodiverse spectrum are particularly at risk in the vast landscape of the metaverse. As Catherine Knibbs, who provides therapy for young victims of online child sexual abuse highlighted that these vulnerabilities can be amplified due to their struggles with understanding relationships and deciphering harmful from benign interactions.

Young users often enter the digital realm naive, having started with a simple console or handheld device, and soon find themselves in more complex territories like VR games, often without sufficient adult guidance. Caregivers’ lack of understanding about internet connectivity and the capabilities of devices such as VR headsets increases the risk factors.

One of our experts, Shannon Pierson,  affiliate of the University of Cambridge’s Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy on XR cybersecurity, privacy, and governance subjects emphasised, regrettably, the metaverse is not a gender-neutral or race-neutral space. Disturbingly, research shows that female and minority avatars tend to be targeted more for online abuse, often experiencing abusive language. The severity and the nature of the harassment are often aligned with the user’s perceived gender and race.

Identifying Emerging Areas of Harm and Looking Ahead

As we peer into the horizon of emerging technologies, we must be mindful of the shadows cast by their potential for misuse. Platforms integrating generative AI tools are providing unprecedented freedom in creativity but also setting the stage for new ways of abuse. There’s also growing concern about the mental health implications for young people who suffer financial loss through cyber theft in the crypto and NFT space.

As technology continues to advance, some professionals dread the inevitable rise of haptic suits, which could drastically change the dynamics of sexual abuse in the metaverse. Situational threats for users, such as those posed by people in their physical vicinity while immersed in the digital space, also need addressing, as well as issues surrounding consent.

Another troubling trend has been noted among youngsters: these digital natives merge mixed reality gaming with other social platforms, for example playing in the metaverse but chatting on Discord or Telegram simultaneously. This can lead to uncheckable, toxic behaviours that often escalate to harmful extremes, including crashing people’s live streams, ‘swatting‘ and ‘doxing‘, instances that have already led to actual death in the offline world.

Exploring Solutions to Online Threats

Personal space boundaries, such as mute and block features, put the power of moderation in the user’s hands but may overwhelm young or distressed individuals and undermine the usefulness of reactive, user-reporting-based human moderation tools. To alleviate this burden, some academics and developers are working on automated moderation tools that could alert users or parents, and flag potential dangers or misbehaviours such as toxic speeches or virtual slappings. While these are not flawless yet, they represent a shift towards more proactive solutions.

The insights shared in this roundtable discussion shed light on the challenges and potential solutions associated with creating a safer metaverse for children. The VIRRAC project will continue to contribute to raising awareness and building a better digital future, based on empirical evidence. Children have the right to enjoy emerging technologies safely and participate in shaping how online spaces are designed for them. As a result, our team will capture children’s perspectives in order to develop an enjoyable, safe metaverse, and incorporate their opinions and experiences to develop practical safety guidelines.

Follow us on this journey to work towards an inclusive metaverse that offers exciting experiences while prioritising the well-being and safety of its youngest users.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo is an associate professor in Criminology at Middlesex University and the associate director of CATS, with extensive experience in researching subjects related to online harms and abuse against women and children. Elena has acted as an advisor on child protection to governments and practitioners in Lithuania, Italy and Bahrain to support the development of national child internet safety policy frameworks and led and co-led research project both in the United Kingdom and internationally.

Recognised as one of the world’s leading experts in criminology, she focuses primarily on online harms, online violence against children and women and online safety. She is an active member of the UK Centre for Internet Safety (UKCIS) and an expert advisor for EIGE on Cyber violence against Women and Girls, mapping national policies, research, data, and definitions on cyber violence against women and girls across the EU-27.

Elena delivers regularly expert training on online safety and prevention to professionals working in the online safety and sexual health area. As well as being the author of two books and more than 40 peer-reviewed articles, she regular speaks on national TV and in print media.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Professor Julie Davidson OBE

Prof Davidson is a professor of criminology and the director of the Institute for Connected Communities at the University of East London. She is one of the UK’s foremost experts on policy and practice in the area of children sexual abuse and exploitation and online harms. Alongside her role as chair of the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group, Prof Davidson provides expert advice to international and national organisations such as the Technology Coalition,  UNICEF, the US Sentencing Commission, the UN ITU, the Home Office and DCMS.

In addition, she is a member of the Europol  EC3 Expert Academic Advisory Group and is the Chair of the Research Ethics Committee to the Independent Inquiry into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. She has been an academic advisor to the Inquiry since it began in 2017.

Twitter: @JuliaDavidson13

Boglarka Meggyesfalvi

Boglarka Meggyesfalvi is a dedicated child protection professional with a commitment to safeguarding children and advocating for their rights. She holds a Master’s degree in Criminology and has recently embarked on her doctoral research. In her role as a researcher at CATS, Boglarka immerses herself in impactful research to advance knowledge in the field of child protection. Her expertise extends internationally, as she serves as a youth projects’ expert for EU initiatives, where she gains invaluable insights into empowering and supporting young individuals on a strategic level. Her diverse career has included positions in the Integrated Rights Protection Service of the Hungarian Home Office and various child protection NGOs across Europe and Latin America.

Twitter: @meggyesfalvi

Photo by julien Tromeur on Unsplash

Coronavirus and COVID-19 Social commentary

Online child sexual abuse during COVID-19. What do the experts say?

Dr Elena Martellozzo, Associate Professor and Criminologist at MDX, presents some of the key issues that were raised during the UKCIS webinar by high-level experts from research, policy and practice.

The risk to children of online sexual abuse, alongside other forms of online harm, is likely to have increased as a result of isolation measures, with children being educated and spending more time online.

Whilst we do not know the true impact of COVID-19, and the harm inflicted to children by offenders during lockdown, it is recognised that it’s an increasing problem and, as a result, needs to be addressed.

The online event was organised by the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group (UKCIS) and supported by the Marie Collins Foundation, the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) from Middlesex University and the University of East London’s Institute for Connected Communities (ICC) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Children online

It’s important to acknowledge that there are enormous benefits for children from being online. In fact, it is only through acknowledging those benefits that “we can better understand the potential for harm to children and seek to mitigate risk through robust research and through safeguarding policy and practice,” said Professor Julia Davidson OBE, Director of the ICC at the University of East London.

Little boy viewed from the back as he looks at a laptop set up in front of him

Supporting this ethos, Dr Jeffrey DeMarco, Senior Fellow with the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) and a Research Director at NatCen Social Research, said that “understanding offending, victimisation and the impact of child sexual exploitation and abuse on wider society is important in forging the best preventative measures moving forward.”

What’s being done to prevent this?

A number of vital changes are taking place in the digital environment to protect children and young people. Early this year the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has adopted  General Comment 25, which now extends children rights to the digital environment.

Furthermore, in the UK, the Online Harms Legislation  is due to be passed imminently, which places responsibility on companies for their users’ safety online, especially children and other vulnerable groups. This is the opportunity for companies and cyber safety technologies to step in and provide protection to its users.

In January 2021, the Home Secretary published the Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, which sets out the government’s vision for preventing, tackling and responding to child sexual abuse in all its forms, whether it’s committed in person or online, in families or communities, in the UK or overseas.

The aims of the strategy were set out clearly at the webinar by Victoria Jepson, Head of Strategy, International and Knowledge in the tackling exploitation and abuse unit at the home office.  Jepson claimed: “We have also made commitments around providing victims and survivors, with the support needed to rebuild their lives.”

Clearly a lot of work is taking place in this area, not only to support victims and survivors but also to prevent young people from further victimisation.

Has online abuse become the norm for digital children?

Dr Jo Bryce, Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, presented some of the findings from De-Shame, a project co-financed by the European Union. Bryce argued that whilst the internet plays an essential role in their lives, for many young people, online sexual harassment, unfortunately, is embedded in their digital lives and to some extent normalised and too often not reported to an adult.

Projects such as De-Shame are vital bringing voices of children to the surface. As Tink Palmer, CEO of the Marie Collins Foundation pointed out: “It is difficult for children to report what has happened to them.” There is evidence to suggest that often children fear the consequences of reporting such as being prohibited by their parents to access their devices and being online.

Dr Victoria Baines, a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University, highlighted the importance of utilising evidenced based data, as some sources are unreliable and do not provide “the true picture” of whether online grooming has increased in the UK due to COVID-19.  Baines argued: “We are assuming that being online is an inherently risky business, that more time online increases the risk of children, and as a consequence of spending more time online during lockdown, grooming in the UK has increased.” Whilst there has been an increase of online child sexual abuse, we cannot yet establish whether this increase is because of the lockdown.

Child sexual abuse is on the rise, offline and online

Talking about the increase of online child sexual abuse, more generally, Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations, offered frontline reports of the problem and presented some very strong evidence stating how “in 30 years we’ve moved from 7,000 to 17 million CSA images”. It was also highlighted that more than 850 offenders are being apprehended a month, and that more than 1000 children have been safeguarded each month through coordinated activity led by professionals like Mr Bailey.

Little girl with head in hand as she scrolls through an iPad while sitting at a table

This webinar highlights that online child sexual abuse is a crime that is not going to reduce any time soon.  In her closing comments, Mary Aiken, Professor of Forensic Cyberpsychology in the Department of Law and Criminology at the University of East London, argued: “Online CSA is a big data problem in terms of variety, velocity and volume of this content and we will need artificial intelligence solutions to tackle the problem.”

There is some good news, Aiken claims: “There is a thriving emerging online safety technology sector in the UK.” However, cyber security focuses on protecting data, networks and systems and not what it is to be human, online. Therefore, events such as this webinar bring together experts working in the field of child protection to present the research evidence and the reliable data needed to fully understand this complex phenomenon. 

Some of the evidence, advice and recommendations presented in this webinar cannot be ignored. The fact that more than 700 hundred people registered for this event demonstrates that people are willing to be involved in this subject, want to learn good practice, raise awareness and contribute to the online safety of children and young people.

 Indeed, we need to work together to create a safer cyber space for us all, but specifically for those young people whose lives are digital by default.

The UKCIS Evidence Group provides expert advice to the UKCIS Board and reviews key research in the Internet safety area. They produce a research highlights series which summarises research findings.

About the author

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. She has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena and her research includes exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse.

Dr Martellozzo is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. She has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) Bahrain (2016) and the Rwandan Government (2019) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Social commentary

Refugee Week: What can we do for refugee children?

Erminia Colucci, Associate Professor in Visual and Cultural Psychology at MDX looks at the growing number of child refugees and the perilous journey they face to escape their own countries.

The prevalence and persistence of religious, racial, political and other forms of persecution, conflict, generalised violence, and human rights violations  in the twenty-first century has seen millions of people flee their countries of origin. Many seek permanent protection, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).

The flow continues and global forced displacement has increased in 2015, with record-high numbers. The UNHCR states by the end of 2020, 65.3 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide. This is an increase of more than 50% in five years and are the highest levels of forced displacement since the aftermath of the World War II.

Growing number of child refugees

Among the millions of people who have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe, one striking feature has been the growing number of children. In June 2015, one in ten of the refugees and migrants was a child and by the end of December it was one in three, according to UNICEF.

In some places, children make up 40% of the asylum-seeking population.  This sums up to currently between 20 and 30 million children and adolescents being forcibly displaced and in need of asylum worldwide. The number of unaccompanied or separated children seeking asylum on an individual basis has increased significantly over recent years, reaching the highest levels since the UNCHR started systematically collecting this data.

Throughout Europe, these unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) are exposed to a contentious institutional conflict; they are treated according to their asylum seeking/refugee status and not primarily as children and adolescents in need of protection during a crucial developmental period.

Easy prey for traffickers and smugglers

A 2016 report by UNICEF-France recorded the plight of unaccompanied children who were living in a number of different camps in northern France and along the coast of the English Channel. As highlighted by this report, throughout their journeys, refugee children suffer poor living conditions and are an easy prey for smugglers and traffickers as well as other powerful adults.

Unaccompanied and separated children are particularly at high risk of exploitation, violence and abuse. UNICEF observed:

“Most of the children who reach Europe come in search of safety and protection, and with the hope of a better future. But reaching Europe does not bring an end to the dangers they face.”

The report also identified practices involving the exchange of sexual services for the promise of passage to the UK or to pay for or speed up their journey. Boys and girls are regularly sexually abused, often by traffickers and their friends. There have also been recordings of children being exploited on cannabis farms in the UK, in Strasbourg and in Paris.

The situation reported in France is not isolated and similar accounts of exploitation and abuse (including sexual assaults committed against both girls and boys) have been reported also in studies in the UK. Findings have also included experiences of neglect, abuse and exploitation at the hands of humanitarian workers and foster carers who were charged with protecting and assisting these children.

The rising global burden of forced migration in the Mediterranean territories is a major social challenge that is increasingly recognised as an urgent issue in international public health and in global and cultural mental health.

Refugee children and young people have been identified as a group with particularly high vulnerability for mental health problems and to suicidal behaviour, due to their experiences of trauma, exposure to violence (whether individually experienced, witnessed or feared), forced migration, stressors associated with their resettlement journey (particularly post-migration detention), experiences of insecurity at a formative stage of child development and other factors.

Risk of mental health problems

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) have been shown to be at higher risk of emotional and behavioural problems, anxiety and depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. A number of the UASC interviewed for the UNICEF report expressed the need to be hospitalised in a psychiatric ward following instances of ‘mental breakdown’ and aggressive and violent episodes directed towards themselves or other young people.

A recent report from Medicine Sans Frontiers (MSF) and Save The Children International (SCI) have indicated that child refugees on Lesbos (Greece) are increasingly self-harming or having suicidal thoughts and behaviours linked with the deteriorating conditions in the camp and access to medical care.

Save the Children developing suicide prevention tools

Save the Children has officially recognised child and youth suicide as an unspoken issue in humanitarian context and published a cry for help disclosing the devastating impact of the EU-Turkey deal on child refugees and migrants.

SCI has, in fact, started developing suicide prevention protocols and training. I am honoured to have recently started providing their staff who are working with children in conflict afflicted areas, gatekeeper training based on the Suicide First Aid Guidelines, for people from immigrant and refugee backgrounds.

Yet, in spite of the increase of UASC refugees, research on their experiences of exploitation and abuse during their journeys, what is in place to protect them and, later, to provide support and help, is very limited.

This means that while high-income countries of resettlement such as France, UK and Australia, have introduced mental health and psychosocial support policies and programmes for children and young people, these are based on limited evidence.

More research needed to help vulnerable children

A review by Lancet on displaced and refugee children indicated the need for research into specific groups of children such as trafficked children, community and social contexts affecting their experiences and mental health outcomes, as well as the impact of specific types of exposures to abuse and violence.

In particular, more research is required to document (also by means of visual methods), understand and improve the mechanisms (e.g. structures, agencies and adult figures) in place throughout the refugee journeys to protect these resilient but vulnerable children from exploitation and abuse, complementing the work carried out by agencies such as Humans for Rights.

Applied and activist research is needed to develop and provide socio-culturally relevant and adequate psychosocial and mental health support (including suicide prevention) to those children and young people who have experienced abuse/violence and exploitation along these journeys.

Erminia is happy to supply a bibliography of references used in this post if required. Please email:

For support and information in UK

Law & politics

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 and Sexual Offending: Policing, Cooperation and 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)
Image: Eric Norris (CC BY 2.0)

Policing and collaboration

Panel one 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

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.

Law & politics

Policing online child sexual abuse

CATS MDXResearch Fellow Dr Jeffrey DeMarco, Research Associate Mia Scally and Lead Investigator and Co-Director of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University Professor Julia Davidson report on a European perspective on the challenges of policing online child sexual abuse ahead of the ISEC Project Conference in London.

For the last two years, a European team led by the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex has been exploring a range of issues linked to the exploitation and abuse of children in cyberspace. This has involved a great deal of effort exploring the continuously expanding literature on crimes perpetrated in cyberspace, but also the placement of associated services, such as law enforcement, victim support, courts, prison and probation.

A robust methodological process was implemented to ensure that the findings were of a high quality and useful, with the ultimate purpose of illustrating both models of good practice in policing collaboration in the case of these crimes, but also cyber-typologies of historical victims of online sexual abuse and exploitation. Culminating our research findings will be a showcase event (see below for details) in which members of the research team, in conjunction with some of the key international and national stakeholders from Interpol, Europol, NSPCC and CATS, will deliberate and discuss the findings and their implications for all vested-parties moving forward.

Anonymous Account (Creative Commons 2.0)
Photo by Anonymous Account (Creative Commons 2.0)

Robust assessment

The project began with a robust and structured ‘pseudo’ rapid evidence assessment, illustrating our current understanding of policing, collaboration and victimology. Over 23,000 documents were identified through the use of 18 pre-constructed search terms. Searches were conducted across 20 academic and grey literature sources. Approximately 1,000 were retained for inclusion using the inclusion/exclusion criteria. Literature was reviewed initially by title to remove any irrelevant terms (e.g. cyber-bullying). Literature was then reviewed by abstract and in full. These findings assisted with identifying key themes and gaps across the research aims and objectives, including:

  • Jurisdictions and incongruent legal frameworks
  • Lack of police communication, resources and standardisation
  • Problems with definitions of victims
  • Invisibility and anonymity of offenders
  • Poor understanding of the pathway from online to offline offending
  • Risky behaviour of youth versus developmental behaviours
  • Incongruence between the aims and objectives of industry and law enforcement.

To understand these sexual crimes, one must understand the idiosyncrasies of technologies and cyberspace and how they have influenced and evolved our general and seminal understanding of child abuse. These concepts guided the entire primary research process and thus were key in informing our data collection procedures and emergent findings.

Working in partnership

Central to the investigation was improving our understanding of the police process in identifying and investigating online childhood sexual abuse. The team wanted to clarify how crimes were reported; who was contacted; where did these reports usually come from and where did they go; what was reported and why. Although much of this information is simplistic in its exploratory nature, and by no means ambiguous to those working closely with or within law enforcement, there is a need for greater sharing of practice, process and problems. This includes key messages from a range of related stakeholders informing how working in partnership is key in tackling these crimes.

The idea is to explore the potential of predicting negative experiences online – potentially targeting vulnerable youth for further support and resources.

The research has also assisted the team in developing theoretical models of adolescent cyber-victimisation and risk-taking behaviour.  Focusing on elements of their externalising and internalising behaviours during those formative teenage years, the models explore the susceptibility and approachability young people face to sexual solicitation while engaging online. The models also explore the influence of recalled/remembered risk behaviour (both virtual and real); the online antecedents of offline anti-social and risk actions; and finally the importance of seeking support and disclosing a negative online sexual experience or approach in influencing later pro-social outcomes, or increasing individual resilience when dealing with sexual content. The idea is to explore the potential of predicting negative experiences online – potentially targeting vulnerable youth for further support and resources.

Influencing practice

What is certain is that there is still much more work to be done. The findings highlighted as a result of this project are meant to inform and influence practice in a way that key stakeholders are aware of the ‘on-the-ground’ process of dealing with these crimes, and the evolving landscape of victimisation. Transparency across law enforcement and victim support are critical in empowering those agencies and agents responsible for offering diligent, effective and usable support. Legitimate practice is reliant on the public’s perception and understanding of those responsible for our safety’s aims and objectives.

This project has assisted in advancing our understanding of what is happening in cyberspace, and the key strengths we have in combatting online abuse directed towards children, as well the weaknesses that affront us. Moving towards empirical-driven policy, as is intended with the results of the last two years, we can only improve across disciplines in combatting these crimes and helping those most vulnerable.

The ISEC Project Conference ‘The Digital World & Sexual Offending: Policing, Cooperation & Victimisation’ takes place on 23 June 2016 at the Institute of Child Health in London. 

Law & politics

Supporting offenders who are also victims

David Porteous Middlesex UniversityThis week, the London Mayoral Office for Policing and Crime published research undertaken at Middlesex University into the development of support services for young people who have offended but have themselves been a victim of crime, abuse and violence. One of the authors of the report, Associate Professor in Criminology at Middlesex University Dr David Porteous, considers the issues raised by the study.

The ‘ideal victim’

In a famous book chapter penned in the mid-1980s, the Norwegian Criminologist Nils Christie coined the term the “ideal victim”.  Observing that some people in some circumstances are much more readily ascribed the status of victim than others, Christie compared two imaginary victims: an elderly lady mugged by a large male stranger on her way home from caring for her sick sister, and a young man hit on the head and stolen from by an acquaintance in a bar. The former matches the profile of the “ideal victim” because she is weak, engaged in a respectable project, cannot be blamed for being on the street at the time and has fallen prey to someone big, bad and unknown. By contrast, sympathy for the young man is likely to be qualified by his relative strength and because he was drinking and knew the assailant. He was, one might say, looking for trouble.

In the real world, young men are of course much more likely to be victims than elderly ladies. Indeed, research dating back decades tells us that young people in general are both more likely to be victims of crime than adults and more likely to be victims than perpetrators.  Perhaps more surprisingly, one’s chances of being a young victim are also statistically greater if one has offended and the reverse is also true, one is more likely to offend if one has been a victim. Confused? You should be. The real world is, um, not ideal and that, in part at least, is Christie’s point.

What though of childhood victims of adult physical and sexual abuse and/or violence?  Do they not meet the criteria of the “ideal victim”? Do stereotype and reality not coincide in such cases? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are a number of children who have become household names for the worst of reasons – Peter Connolly; Madeline McCann; Victoria Climbié – and whose murders remain in the public memory because they conform to deep held notions of innocence versus barbarity. But also no. No because what we do with far too many children and young people who have been victims of abuse and violence perpetrated by adults, is to send them to prison.

Needless to say, this does not happen immediately. The evidence suggests that society frequently places young people who have been abused in care first and it is from there that many – as many as a third according to a recent study – graduate to custodial establishments. Nor, of course, does this happen without the young person in question kicking up some trouble and victimising others. If only they could have accepted their victim status more readily!

While a branch of conventional criminological theory tells us that for a crime to occur, there needs to be present an offender, a victim and a suitable target, this is of limited use when the offender and victim are the same person but in a different place and time.

The uncomfortable truth

The uncomfortable truth is that most of the 1,000 or so young people resident at Her Majesty’s pleasure on any one day in England and Wales have experienced, witnessed and/or suffered from crime, violence and abuse, and that’s before they get there. And, as with other young people who have been raped, beaten up, shouted at, robbed or bullied, a significant number – estimates suggest around a half – will have emotional and mental health problems resulting from this troubled history. In a small but not insignificant number of cases, young people in prison and serving community-based sentences have been assessed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, nightmares and self-harm are much more common. 290 young inmates aged under 21 have died in English and Welsh prisons since 1990 according to the government’s own figures; 264 took their own lives. On the street, meanwhile, young people in contexts characterised by on the one hand economic disadvantage and social exclusion, and on the other, hey, a booming drugs market, continue to assault, rape and attempt to kill each other, victims of circumstance.

Jonathan Kos-Read Creative Commons 2.0
Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read (Creative Commons 2.0)

What then can and should we do to better support the needs of young offenders who have themselves been victims of crime, abuse and violence? Within the youth justice system, the default response at present is to refer young people assessed as having emotional and health needs linked to victimisation and/or trauma to a mental health nurse or clinician. I say “refer” because it is more often than not the case that no formal response is forthcoming, due both to limited resources – child and mental health services have been subject to real term spending cuts since 2010 – and because young people themselves shy away from the prospect of seeing a shrink, due to the stigma attached or because they think ‘it’s not me that’s mad’.

Somewhat ironically, psychologists themselves question whether forms of treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy are appropriate for young people who have been subject to abuse and violence, as there is evidence to suggest these negative experiences can inhibit cognitive and behavioural development such that they are not ready or able to engage with this level of  intervention. From this perspective, more basic emotional and social needs have to be met first, including a sense of security and a semblance of normality, conditions unlikely to be met in a prison cell or psychologist’s chair.

Abstracting from individual needs and remedies, I would suggest we need to rethink our responses to youth crime. While a branch of conventional criminological theory tells us that for a crime to occur, there needs to be present an offender, a victim and a suitable target, this is of limited use when the offender and victim are the same person but in a different place and time. The labels ‘offender ‘and ‘victim’ do not adequately reflect the complex and difficult lives of those caught up in the web of the criminal justice system. We need to grow up, acknowledge the underlying problems, and show some compassion.