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Podcast: technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour

Last updated: 29 Nov 2021 Topics: Podcast

Understanding technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour (TA-HSB)

TA-HSB is when children and young people use the internet or technology such as mobile phones to engage in sexual activity that may be harmful to themselves or others.

Listen to Pat Branigan, the NSPCC’s Associate Head of Development, Emma Hodgson, an NSPCC development social worker and Carol Carson from the AIM Project discuss:

  • the prevalence and different forms of TA-HSB
  • the NSPCC's research into this area
  • the challenges for professionals around the fast-paced nature of technology
  • resources available to help develop confidence in managing incidents of TA-HSB.
This is the third episode in our three-part series about harmful sexual behaviour. Listen back to the first episode and second episode.

Listen on YouTube


About the speakers

Pat Branigan is the Associate Head of Development at the NSPCC and leads the charity’s response to child sexual abuse with a focus on preventing harmful sexual behaviour displayed by children and young people. In addition to this, he’s an anthropologist with a background in public health and has led research into sensitive sexual health topics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Emma Hodgson, a qualified social worker, has worked for the NSPCC for the past 16 years and is a part of the NSPCC/AIM development group that has produced guidance on HSB and technology. Her current role as a Development Social Worker involves developing and delivering HSB and child sexual abuse training and facilitating workshops for professionals working with children and families.

Carol Carson is an independent social work consultant with 30 years’ experience in safeguarding children and is the manager of The AIM Project. She has 25 years specialising in assessing and working with children and adolescents with harmful sexual behaviours. This includes writing several books on the subject.

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Related resources

> See our resources and research about harmful sexual behaviour

> Read more about Hackett's continuum

> Have a look at our research on the prevalence of TA-HSB

> Listen to the first episode in this series on direct work with children

> Listen to the second episode in this series on planning therapeutic sessions

> Find out more about the AIM Project

> Learn more about the TA-HSB guidance training course

> Discover more about harmful sexual behaviour in schools in our previous HSB series


Podcast transcription

Welcome to the NSPCC Learning podcast, where we share learning and expertise in child protection from inside and outside of the organisation. We aim to create debate, encourage reflection and share good practice on how we can all work together to keep babies, children and young people safe.

Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This is the final episode in our series on harmful sexual behaviour - also known as HSB - and focuses on technology-assisted behaviours. Harmful sexual behaviour can be exhibited in different ways. Face-to-face or contact behaviours occur when someone is harmed directly. Technology-assisted behaviours occur online. Children or young people engage in sexualised behaviour by using the internet or technology such as mobile phones. This might include viewing pornography, sharing nudes or semi-nudes, or indecent images. And you can get behaviours that are a combination of both.

As with contact or face-to-face, harmful sexual behaviours, technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviours are harmful to both the child or young person that displays the behaviour and any people impacted by those behaviours. In addition, the context of the behaviour and the child or young person's age and stage of development are important considerations.

We recorded this episode in September 2021 with Pat Branigan, who is the NSPCC's Associate Head of Development and leads on our child sexual abuse work. Pat was in conversation with Emma Hodgson, one of our development social workers, and Carol Carson from the AIM project which - along with the NSPCC - is one of the leading organisations in the area of HSB. Both Emma and Carol have specialisms in working with children and young people with technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviours.

In this podcast, there is mention of prevalence. We don't know the true number of children and young people affected by harmful sexual behaviour, but attempts to estimate the prevalence of HSB have been made using data from children's self-reported experiences of sexual abuse by peers, and services which work with children who display HSB. From this research, we can estimate that around a third of child sexual abuse is by other children and young people.

Pat, Emma and Carol discuss how the use of technology to facilitate harmful sexual behaviour is of growing concern and how the fast-paced nature of technology can leave professionals feeling that they are often behind the curve. Pat, Emma and Carol also discuss what's available to professionals to help them make sense of technology-assisted HSB in order to help develop confidence and competence.

Resources mentioned in this podcast, such as the Technology-assisted practice guidance, the Hackett continuum - which is a tool to help you objectively look at whether a behaviour might be developmentally typical, problematic or harmful - and training courses will all be signposted on this podcast's webpage as well as a link to the research on prevalence.

I'm Pat Brannigan and I'm sitting here with Emma Hodson and flying in to join us by Zoom is Carol Carson from Belfast. We're going to be looking in more depth the issue of technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour. So if this is something that you've heard about and you want to know a little bit more about - hopefully this will be of interest to you.

Harmful sexual behaviour is an umbrella term for a range of behaviours, helpfully best understood on a continuum from developmentally typical through to inappropriate, problematic and harmful. So into this mix, we need to think about technology, about social media, about the internet. How does this aspect of the modern world and the integral part it plays in the lives of our children and young people fit into our wider understanding of harmful sexual behaviour? And that is where we come upon the issue of technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour. So Emma, why is technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour currently an issue for us?

Hi Pat, thank you. I think we all recognise that young people and children's worlds are linked both off and online to social media and network accounts which always seem to be on. But it's important to remember and acknowledge that being born into the digital age and the age of the internet does not mean that you're born with the skills to navigate the online world. We know that technology can provide opportunities and benefits, but also has the potential for young people to use it for harm. We also know that the impact of online child sexual abuse can be as impactful as offline harmful sexual behaviour and the work of people like Elly Hanson and colleagues who have done research into this area shows that we must take account of the impact for victims and survivors of online sexual harmful behaviour and to think about how we can best address these issues.

I've worked for the NSPCC for 16 years, of which most of those were in practice and really this work was born out of people recognising in practice when working with children and young people around harmful sexual behaviour that there was an element of technology or the internet coming into play with some of these cases and thinking about how can we best support young people in those instances? Emma Belton and Vicki Hollis, from the NSPCC, then did some work - a lit[erature] review in 2016 and a deep dive of NSPCC cases in 2017 - and you can find their work on our website. And that was really influential to help think about what does this look like? What are we talking about when we use the term technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour? And it is really an umbrella term to think about a continuum of different behaviours that young people may be engaging in. We know from their research that young people can dip in and out of behaviours at different time in their lives and that they don't follow a sequential process of starting at a certain point, but can come in and out.

Emma and Vicki's work also helped us think about three different forms of harmful sexual behaviour in technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour. On its own - where there is no other offline behaviour that we've been able to recognise, dual behaviour - which is both on[line] and offline behaviour - now that might not be connected, that might not be behaviour that has a connection or it might be. And then offline only harmful sexual behaviour - when no technology at all has been used to facilitate that behaviour.

So would that be like contact?

Yes. Yeah, that's what we would traditionally call that.

So the contact harmful sexual behaviour offences. Yeah, okay great. The story, and we'll come to it a little bit later, the story really builds on that idea that we had this research, didn't we, in the NSPCC, which I think it was quite surprising for all of us involved that we found that when you do something like a lit[erature] research, you're looking for established literature internationally in this area of work and I think what was quite astounding was just the paucity of any sort of evidence base for some of this work. And at this point, we joined forces with colleagues in AIM and AIM are market leaders in risk assessments and HSB and training. And so there was a natural partnership I think at the time to think this is something we're seeing from an NSPCC perspective, is it also something that you're seeing in your world as well? And picking up that point about contact offences and things like that, but also this idea of this whole new area involving the internet and online and social media and just this sense of is anybody really looking at this? And is anybody able to make sense of just what is the impact of it, but also what are the risks involved in not being able to intervene?

We really recognise when we started to look into this that there is not a lot of research out there. And it's still really in its infancy which is quite shocking really when we think about in practice we're seeing cases coming through where professionals are asking us for help and support on this issue. When we did the lit[erature] review, we recognise that there was very little out there internationally and that we needed to do something with the cases that we had in the NSPCC. That's why the deep dive from Emma and Vicki came about.

And what we can see from that research that was done back in 2017 was that taking the NSPCC cases - and of course they were already cases that came to us because of issues around harmful sexual behaviour - that the majority when we were looking of any elements of technology within that were the dual cases was the biggest category, and a much smaller prevalence for just TA only. I think it'd be really interesting to see any new research of what that might look like because I think it does shift and it does change. And it would be great to think about where we're at now, particularly thinking about the pandemic and how technology has been used by young people during this time.

I would echo very much what is being said. I think your terminology of the digital world that young people grow up in, that impacts on every aspect of their life and their attitudes, their values, behaviours, is very much present in this type of behaviour, whether it be from the lower end of the spectrum, right up to the very high end where we're talking about very serious sexual abuse of another person, sometimes with no direct contact with that other person and yet still, it is powerfully abusive. It is traumatising. So I think sometimes people feel, yes, they're not actually directly being touched therefore it's somehow not as bad, but certainly from the research and the practice experience, for the person who is subjected to that, the trauma of that particularly psychologically, sometimes being coerced into doing things to yourself, which then has a really difficult process for you.

What you said just to actually agree with it and echo it is this complete digital world we have to understand. And I think the reason that there's been less research on it, certainly I think it's catching up now, is it was such a fast moving world in terms of development that for us old people trying to keep up with what was happening by the time we had, it and moved on, which is linked to the social stuff that kids, that teenagers do. They have to always be different from the generation ahead. So I think there was a feeling of always being behind the curveball as a professional, not really understanding and not really knowing what to do to do about it.

And then for the young people themselves, I think certainly the latest media reports where girls are now ‘expecting’ and ‘accepting’ that they’ll potentially at some point be harassed sexually online or offline, called names, being judged on their appearance. Or also be sent naked pictures or be requested naked pictures, to the point where they're not actually going to report that to anybody because “hey, it's just how it is”.

That whole issue around consensual/non-consensual image sharing, which again to us old people again, Carol coming in that one, we used to call sexting, didn't we? Couple of years ago that's now out of ‘vogue’. We are talking about much more in terms of exactly what's happening. And this idea of some of the really important distinctions here around whether it's consensual sharing or non-consensual sharing which is as you say moves so quickly as well in terms of what our understanding of that is.

But I think there's another layer to it as well Pat which is actually for the young people who are engaged in both asking for and sending some of these nudes. I don't think the whole concept of consensual is simply it. It's actually ‘normal’. It's actually “this is what we do”. If you ask them, "do you think what you're doing is wrong?", that wouldn't even come into it. So I think consent is an element to it that perhaps again we're slightly behind. We're focusing solely on that whereas there's another layer of “is this normal? Is this okay? What are the current standards and boundaries in your peer group?”. I don't just mean your small peer group, but your peer group across the board. And that's why I think there's been a lot of criticism of young boys and young men and yet you have to ask what is the environment they’re growing up in?

The second thing of where the internet or social media or technology-assisted elements, which then start to come into more coercive type behaviours, [which] we are seeing a massive increase [in]. Because if you can imagine your world is very digital generally, then for those who are actually perhaps pushing the boundaries even more with sexual behaviours, the fact that there's elements of the digital world in that as well, we should actually expect it to happen. And then the top end and Emma talked about how we're developing our understanding of those who seem to only do it online, but what they're doing online, what they're doing digitally, is as abusive, as traumatic, to the person who is harmed as somebody who's doing it in the same room. And I think we have to be clear about that. There's a massive difference between somebody consensually asking for a nude picture of perhaps of their girlfriend and somebody who is only doing technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour, but at a very severe level. And we really need understand the difference.

Absolutely, absolutely. That's a really good point. And I guess it's a nice segue Carol into the next bit of discussion which is around what is out there currently to help professionals think about exactly some of those points? How do we make sense of what's happening and the motivations of what's happening? Because just as you said, often in the wider world of so much communication and interaction going on digitally and via social media, it's not necessarily until you look at some of those emails and see the coercion and the power control, the threats and the bullying within that, when suddenly the real issues really jump out for you about what is going on and why and how these images are potentially being shared. So thinking then that about what's out there at the moment, can you maybe just tell us a little bit about the tech-assisted practice guidance and how that's pulled together, how that hangs together, how that works in real life and ultimately who it's for - I think Carol would be really helpful.

Certainly and as you said Pat, it was a thing we have done in partnership with the NSPCC. As Emma clearly said, the NSPCC have been doing quite a bit of research on this and looking at what else was around. So it gave us a very, very helpful foundation, grounding in what was known. And as Emma said, that was perhaps less than we would have expected or wanted. But certainly, I think with the development of understanding in any aspect of HSB, you have to start from somewhere. So it was a very, very good basis and start. And looking at that, what we were, as the AIM project's charitable remit is to support the development of practitioners - their confidence and their competence - in this field of work generally in HSB.

And one of the things that we do to do that is to write, along with partners occasionally like yourselves, the NSPCC, guidance for practitioners which basically pulls together what is known already from research and from practice and puts together a guide for how might you understand it in your practice? What are you looking out for? What do you think you might see? How might you think about that? How might you process that? How might you deal with it? So the guidance that we wrote together very definitely has that summary of the research, what underpins this type of behaviour and the very useful continuum you've already talked about, a part from the lower end right through to higher end, and helping people to get a sense of it's not all one thing. It's not all really, really bad.

But then also we've put together a model that helps people if they've already got a really good grounding in understanding adolescents. We would recommend now that people have the training in AIM 3 which is the adolescent model. So you already start with the understanding of why an adolescent might actually engage in sexual behaviours that are harmful to other people. And then the AIM and NSPCC guidance if you like is a layering on top of that. It's helping very experienced practitioners to then think about, well if this young person, there's a significant element of technology-assisted in there as well, what else do we need to think about? How might we need to think about that particular behaviour or that particular motivation? About their family and how we understand that because this is, for example, in this assessment model is one of the dissonances with our previous models. Generally for a mainstream adolescent, background issues and family histories are very often prevalent, was one of the things that came out of the research, which we've got in this model is that that may not necessarily be as prevalent or as obvious or even present in the backgrounds of young people where it is technology-assisted, particularly technology-assisted only.

We've tried to put together a framework for professional decision making. Trying to build up confidence and competence because a lot of professionals feel very disempowered, just as they say, because we generally tend to be older than the young people we work with. They're running way ahead of us. So it's about giving people a good starting point to develop their confidence, their knowledge, their competence in actually okay, this young person has either TA-only, technology-assisted only type of behaviours or they've got mixed both direct contact behaviours and TA behaviours. How do we understand them? And what do we do with them? Which is the most important bit.

Absolutely. The guidance there that you just described Carol, so this jointly-developed guidance, that sits alongside a pretty comprehensive training package, doesn't it? And Emma, you're a trainer as part of that programme, aren't you? Delivering that training? So again, how important is the training alongside the actual guidance?

I think it's really helpful. I think the feedback that we get from the delegates that come along is that it gives them space, a safe space, to explore some of these issues. To ask some of the questions that they haven't been able to ask previously. Building on what Carol was saying there, that we do hear from a lot of professionals who are feeling de-skilled in this area and are wanting some support, and they're finding it difficult to get that from their usual avenues of colleagues because maybe their colleagues haven't had the training or had any cases. So bringing people together and allowing them space and time to discuss some of these issues, explore some of this in a safe place. We go through a case study, we let them really pull apart some of the nuances of that, and get them really involved and allow them time to think about what is beneficial for their own learning, what we can help support with that and what else we can do or what they might need going forward. That's the feedback that we're getting generally. Is that what you see as well Carol?

Yes, absolutely. Just to say the AIM Project runs courses in conjunction with our colleagues in the NSPCC. And the one Emma's talking about there is that more advanced level which is as I say for experienced practitioners. And you're absolutely right, the amount of time both yourself Emma and the AIM Associates say is taken up just by sometimes, not basic questions, but that need to understand, to develop that understanding, in there is there. But I think one of the things that we also get very good feedback on is about the case formulation at the end of it. Because I think certainly for us in the AIM Project, I know for yourselves, we are not simply about doing assessments. It's about doing an assessment to understand what to do. And that's the most important thing, what interventions are going to be most effective here for that young person, for their family, but equally for anybody else in the future who might have been harmed by them. We want to have less people who are harmed and therefore we have to do this work.

Absolutely. And I think we've all delivered training, haven't we, where when you're training with people and for the first time, they come across something like the Hackett continuum, and you can see all of a sudden there's a sense of wow, people have thought about this. And I recognise where this behaviour sits within some consistent, evidence-based thinking, in a framework. And I think that's what this technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour practice guidance really helps as well is this idea there is a continuum, you can map what you're seeing but your point exactly Carol, you need to do something about it. And what we're saying is, you need to understand first what it is you are recognising, where it sits within one of these continuums and then again, what you can do going forward that will support and address the risks, the needs, all the risks and needs around that child or young person displaying the harmful sexual behaviour.

And I think that's a good point because I think we get too hung up on just the sexual element and when you unpick something and look at what is fundamentally underpinning it, then you see the wider range of risks and needs and that whole profile and those need to be addressed as well rather than simply just ‘they must do this’, in relation to their sexual behaviour. But I totally agree in the sense that what you do and what we do is about trying to give people a strong structure and framework to get started. Knowing it's evidence-based, that it's reliant on research and practice, that they can have confidence in that, that somebody's done that thinking for them, and that allows them then to build confidence.

And I think I was just going to come in there and say exactly that. I feel very much grounded in practice. And for me, when I pick up the guidance and I look at it, I think it's really user-friendly for professionals. I think that the way that it's linked, the practice and the research really helps you think about what does that mean for the individual that you might have in front of you? It's not just research that isn't then grounded and isn't linked to the practice. It really helps to say “we're telling you this from research and that's what it means for when you're going out to work with young people”. And I really, really like that. I think that is also some of the feedback that we do get from the people that are using the guidance.

So thanks again to Emma, thanks again to Carol for joining us today. We will put the links to the documents and the various resources we've talked about here. So not only the research, but also links to some of the courses and some of the other bits and pieces we talked about in the podcast. But thanks for joining us and I hope you found this helpful.


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