Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse: A growing threat we fight together

A huge spike in self-generated material since Covid shows the urgency of tackling online sexual abuse and the importance of education, writes Sarah Blight

A huge spike in self-generated material since Covid shows the urgency of tackling online sexual abuse and the importance of education, writes Sarah Blight

25 Sep 2022, 5:00

It is our responsibility at the National Crime Agency to protect the UK from serious and organised crime. This includes child sexual abuse, a threat which continues to grow year-on-year and one that we dedicate significant resource to tackling.

We work with local and national police forces, government, industry and voluntary sector partners, both in the UK and abroad, to prevent offending, protect victims and bring offenders to justice. This means that as well as investigating and arresting child sex offenders, we also educate children and young people, their parents and carers and the professionals who work with them about child sexual abuse.

One area of child sexual abuse where we have seen an increase is so-called self-generated child sexual abuse material. This refers to material such as nude or semi-nude images or videos which has been made by a child or young person themselves as a result of being pressured, tricked, bullied, or coerced. It may then be re-shared without their consent by an adult or by another child or young person.

In 2021, the Internet Watch Foundation, a UK organisation that works to find and remove online child sexual abuse material, took action to remove 252,000 URLs which contained images or videos of child sexual abuse. Of these, 72 per cent contained material that had been self-generated – an increase of 374 per cent on pre-pandemic levels.

Education is a core part of the NCA’s response to tackling this growing problem. Our aim is to reduce children and young people’s vulnerability to such crimes. We do this by giving them the skills, knowledge, and confidence they need to seek help from an appropriate source when they need it. We also educate the professionals who work with them, and parents and carers, so they understand what online child sexual abuse is and can better support children and young people.

Most only seek support after they have been blackmailed

The NSPCC’s 2017 report, Everyone deserves to be happy and safe, highlighted the importance of education in this fight. Young people who contributed to the research said education would have made a difference, reducing their vulnerability by helping them to understand abuse and consent from a young age.

Ofsted’s report on sexual abuse in schools also showed the extent of the challenge, and new statutory relationships and sex education (RSE) is part of the solution. We know that the age group of young people most likely to create and receive nude images is 13- to 14-year-olds. Unfortunately, most are likely only to seek adult support after they have been blackmailed/threatened, or their image has been re-shared and is no longer in their control. This is why RSE should start early.

Our online child sexual abuse education programme (CEOP Education) complements this curriculum. It helps children and young people to develop an understanding of what healthy and mutually respectful relationships are. It also teaches them how to identify and respond to pressure and manipulation, especially online, and where to go to get help, support or to report what has happened to them.

We know that teachers are more time-pressed than ever before, so we offer ready-to-use lesson plans, short films and interactive content to help primary and secondary schools deliver effective and age-appropriate relationships education. Our CEOP Talks Relationships campaign throughout September and October showcases these resources and we’ll be discussing how professionals can support secondary-aged young people in building healthy relationships in our free webinar on 6 October.

Whether it’s navigating their relationships in an increasingly online world or building their resilience to the criminals who would prey on them there, we know education is one of our most powerful tools to protect young people.

The need has never been more acute, and together we can and must rise to that challenge.

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