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Conference 2019: From Discovery to Recovery – Online Sexual Abuse of Children

Conference 2019: From Discovery to Recovery – Online Sexual Abuse of Children was supported by both BT and End Violence Against Children (EVAC).  It was arranged, over two days, with day one focussed on the developments and challenges, and day two based on workshops.

Chief Constable Simon Bailey, Norfolk Police, NPCC Lead for Child Protection & Abuse Investigation and MCF Trustee set the scene for the conference.  In 2017/18 664 victims were successfully identified in indecent images of children (IIOC), with on average 450 arrests and 700 children safeguarded each month through coordinated activity.  UK is one of the top 3 consumers of child abuse live streaming from the Philippines and 66,000 to 80,000 minimum number of adults with a sexual interest in children in the UK.  

John Carr OBE, Internet Safety Consultant then shared what he saw as the remaining challenges in online child protection.  

  • Bullying remains the number one concern with it often leading to significant harm.  
  • Issues of body image, low self-esteem, the idea that everyone else is living a more interesting, even a perfect life, can lead to depression or create other difficulties by tempting a child to create and post about a fantasy life.  
  • The impulse to post in ways designed to attract attention and win “likes” can have very undesirable consequences.  
  • Children who have other vulnerabilities, special needs or are from marginal communities are at much greater risk.  
  • There are anxieties about screen time and over-use or “addiction” particularly when linked to games/gaming/gambling.  
  • Privacy concerns which also link into a wider set of concerns about exposure to unfair commercial exploitation. 
  • “Self-generated” sexual images now approaching one fifth of all new illegal child sex abuse materials being found on the internet. 
  • Exposure to ostensibly legal adult pornography which is potentially very scary for young children and shaping older children’s ideas about sex and relationships.  
  • Grooming continues to be an issue even though it remains the case that the majority of sexual abuse continues to be carried out by someone within the child’s “circle of trust”.
  • Where images are created it magnifies, expands, and changes the original abuse.
  • Grooming can lead to real world encounters or to virtual ones where sexual acts are performed either for the videos/images or for one off performances.
  • Live streaming becoming an issue, not just in the developing world.
  • Child sex abuse materials continue to circulate on a gigantic scale.

Howard Taylor informed delegates about the global context of the online threat and how the End Violence Against Children partnership is working to develop solutions through awarding grants and co-ordinating activity across the globe.  MCF are one of the grantee’s and are developing a global protection network to capacity build across partners internationally.

We heard from Rhiannon-Faye McDonald, Victim and Survivor Advocate, MCF about the impact of online child abuse on the victim.  Rhiannon shared what was done to her, and the impact that had, as a way of helping those in the audience understand the impact.

Equipping parents to keep children safe was the subject of the presentation by Karl Hopwood, consultant on e-safety in Schools and a MCF Trustee.  Karl spoke about how social media apps are deliberately designed to be addictive to users.  The difficulty this poses for us is that knowing they are designed to be compulsive how can we reprimand children for being preoccupied with them?  We must give them time out – literally.  We need to be more focussed on behaviour and less on technology.  We need to understand what it is children are being bombarded with and open the dialogue.

Lisa Thornhill from Lucy Faithfull Foundation posed the problem of understanding the risks posed to children by parents who download IIOC (Indecent Images of Children).  Lucy began by talking about the impact on them of the parent’s arrest, the impact on the non-abusive parent, the impact of their world imploding including their lack of understanding about what is happening.  Lisa went on to share examples of good practice which included having conversations with children about what has happened, building their resilience and how to assess the risk.  Lisa recommended more training and guidance for intervening professionals; further research regarding the risk posed by parents who download IIOC; the need for materials specifically for children and open debate on whether people convicted of IIOC offences can be good parents.  

Dr Sharon Cooper, Forensic Paediatrician finished off the day by looking at Digital addiction.  She posed the issue of technology opening the door to the behaviour changing game, enabling access to new customers, influencing people’s attitudes, and ultimately changing their behaviour.  Dr Cooper shared case studies of parents being so engrossed in their gaming worlds that their children starved to death.  She also spoke about the negative impact on reading comprehension due to reading from a digital source leading to too many parts of the brain being activated as compared to when one is visually tracking from a page with subsequent thinking and reflection on the content.  This addictive behaviour is caused by gaming interacts with the reward which triggers the release of dopamine. This makes the brain shift into a state of wanting, expecting and desiring pleasure.  Over time the brain becomes tolerant to the dopamine which leads to increased cravings. The reward pathway then highjacks other regions of the brain – specifically the executive function regions of the brain that are responsible for judgement, decision-making, learning and memory. Certain types of children are at particularly high risk of being high jacked – children with ADHD and/or depression and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

After a very thought-provoking day, delegates prepared for the workshops in day 2.  

  1. Training Carers in the Equality-based Provision of Safe Internet Access as a Prevention Strategy.  Facilitated by Cam Keogh-Ly, Chris Keogh-Ly and David Sankey, founders of Guardian Saints CIC.  The workshop explored how effective carer training can help develop a practical approach to establishing robust exploitation prevention strategies and discussed challenges carers face when trying to provide safe internet access.
  2. My Story of Child Sexual Exploitation and Adult Rape.  Facilitated by Phil Mitchell, Male Sexual Abuse Specialist. Phil shared his personal story to help identify and explore the barriers for boys and men in disclosing abuse and rape, and how professionals can address these barriers.
  3. Aiding Victims of Digital Sexual Violence. Facilitated by Julia von Weiler, Psychologist.  Digital media facilitates shifting boundaries with regard to how we communicate with others, with platforms inviting users towards greater self-expression. This workshop considered prevention as well as intervention and explored why digital relationship skills are vital in protecting children.
  4. Positive Pathways for Young People Engaging in Sexually Harmful Behaviours Online. Facilitated by Lisa Thornhill, Child Sexual Abuse Expert, Lucy Faithfull Foundation (LFF). Media reports regularly comment on increasing numbers of young people being reported for TA-HSB (Technology Assisted Harmful Sexual Behaviour). In this workshop Lisa shared the research being undertaken by LFF to understand what happens next for young people and how do we work with them.
  5. Child Sexual Abuse Images.  Facilitated by Ethel Quayle CBE, Professor of Forensic Clinical Psychology, University of Edinburgh.  This workshop looked critically at what we know about the children within these images, used case material to explore the contexts for images creation, the impact of being photographed and what little we know about resolution.
  6. Steering Clear of Indecent Images of Children: A Campaign. Facilitated by Molly Courtice, Home Office; Sarah French, Marie Collins Foundation; Angela Munoz Aroca, Internet Watch Foundation. The campaign, launched in 2017, was designed to educate and empower young men to navigate the internet safely by increasing awareness of the law around indecent images and videos (IIOC) of under-18s online, building knowledge of how to report IIOC to the Internet Watch Foundation and building understanding of the harm caused to victims of IIOC. 

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