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Turning the tide on online offending: Our CEO's message to the Policing Institute for The Eastern Region conference

21 July 2023

Our CEO, Deborah Denis, was recently invited to speak at this year’s Policing Institute for the Eastern Region conference (PIER23) where she reflected on seven years of our campaign to deter online child sexual abuse. 

PIER23 brought together speakers from across the UK and the world to look at the whole system response to online abuse, including the implications for victims, their families and offenders.  

Building barriers to online offending

Deborah Denis began her address by explaining our work to prevent child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse is not inevitable; it is preventable. If all adults who pose a sexual risk to children get help to avoid committing harm, we can prevent children from being victimised.

Using the Finkelhor model that details the ‘four preconditions’ needed for child sexual abuse to take place, she discussed how people who abuse children move from motivation to overcoming internal inhibitors, external inhibitors, and victim resistance (although not necessarily always in that linear order).

“Motivation can manifest in many different ways,” explained Deborah. “Once it is there, a person with a motivation must get over their internal inhibitors – that could be described as their conscience.

“They also need to circumvent external inhibitors, which could be those around the child who will be seeking to protect the child – a parent or colleague. Finally, they must overcome victim resistance, which could be described as the grooming process. If these ‘preconditions’ need to be overcome for an offence to take place, then they can also become barriers to the offence taking place.”

She further detailed how our work aims to make these barriers to offending as high as possible, while also placing the responsibility on the offender to not offend, rather than the responsibility on the child to keep themselves safe.

“And yes, there will be some who are motivated to abuse who are so intent on their actions that the barriers would never be strong enough,” she acknowledged. “But there are plenty more, sadly, who struggle with their intentions. Feel guilt and shame. And it is these we seek to reach – before a child is harmed.”

Stop It Now! – Helping to prevent child sexual abuse

Our Stop It Now! helpline supports anyone who has concerns about child sexual abuse, including adults worried about their own sexual thoughts and behaviour towards children (online and offline). It also supports people concerned about another adult or a young person, adults concerned about a child who may have been abused, professionals calling for case advice, survivors of child sexual abuse, and more.

Since launching in 2002, we’ve helped over 71,500 individuals through over 140,000 calls, emails and chats. We are not just a listening service. Our skilled advisors clarify the situation with callers, show understanding, inform, advise and motivate discussions on future steps while agreeing on protective actions that must be taken by the caller to ensure children’s safety.

By analysing our helpline data, we identify trends that help us to develop new ways of protecting children. This has supported the evolution of our many programmes that work towards reducing risk by offenders, preventing reoffending, working with loved ones of those arrested, professionals, law enforcement, and even our work in schools.

We provide information and support for people who are either concerned about their online viewing of sexual images of children, their thoughts and urges to do so, and previous offenders. Our Get Help self-directed intervention provides information and anonymous self-help modules to help prevent offending.

Our multi-faceted approach to preventing child sexual abuse involves reaching and helping people, conducting research and advocating for a greater focus on preventing abuse before it happens and for taking a public health approach to the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Help to stop offending is available… and it works

The experience of our helpline shows that some people who have abused children – or who are at risk of doing so – will reach out for help to change, if they know it’s available.

“Our experience suggests that the vast majority of those who offend online are not committed to their behaviour. And if challenged to change their behaviour, many will,” reflected Deborah.

We wanted to reach more people so in 2015 we piloted a communications campaign to see if, on a bigger scale, we could reach and deter people from viewing sexual images of children online.

Our campaign emphasised key messages informed by our own research with people who had offended.

  • Viewing sexual images of under-18s is a crime.
  • It causes harm to victims.
  • It has severe consequences for the viewer and their families.
  • We offer anonymous help to stop.

As such, we used straightforward warnings with signposting to help address illegal and harmful behaviour, and to stop offending. These messages were released through hard-hitting press pieces, social media, digital advertising and in partnership with other organisations, such as the NHS.

Our campaign runs annually for about six months at a time and each phase is independently evaluated to ensure that delivery and resources are effective, while allowing us to learn and adapt by the following phase.

Our data show that the campaign drives people to our helpline and online resources. And even better: “The majority of un-arrested people report at least one positive change in their attitudes or behaviour since seeing or engaging with our campaign or resources,” explained Deborah as she discussed the findings of the campaigns.

“Actions people take to manage or change their behaviour include restricting their use of the internet generally, or social media specifically, and changing behaviour to avoid risky situations. In addition, reducing or ceasing the use of illegal images completely is consistently reported by un-arrested offenders,” Deborah added.

The path to a safer internet                            

We have also collaborated with others to display warning messages. When people search for sexual images of children on Google, Facebook, and MindGeek-owned websites including Pornhub, or click on a blocked URL which has been identified as hosting illegal material they will encounter messages that confront their behaviour, highlight the consequences of their actions and challenge them to change, thus protecting children from harm. Each year these warnings bring tens of thousands of people to our online self-help to stop offending, and their huge impact is clear evidence for expansion to more platforms.

Fuelled by our latest partnership with Nominet, we are embarking on a three-year journey to revolutionise our online warning messages. By creating a hostile internet, we hope to deter offending by building and strengthening barriers across the web, so that potential offenders always have their behaviour challenged.

An inspired Deborah concluded, “We firmly believe we should not leave children to protect themselves. And, our only response cannot be to arrest the perpetrators after a child has been harmed. If we allow that to be the case, we would be grossly letting our children down.”  

If you are concerned about your own or someone else's sexual thoughts or behaviour towards children, visit Stop It Now! or call 0808 1000 900 for anonymous support to stop and stay stopped.

Proactive action is needed and we all have a part to play. We welcome opportunities to work collaboratively across sectors to curb the growing problem of online child sexual abuse in the future.

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