How young people are affected by sexual abuse and how professionals respond to it
We need to understand the impact of child sexual abuse (CSA) so we can provide appropriate support to children. We live in an increasingly digital world but know relatively little about the effects of CSA carried out using online or digital technologies (technology-assisted CSA, or TA-CSA). We commissioned researchers from the University of Bath, University of Birmingham and CEOP to find out more.
The research team carried out interviews and questionnaires with a group of young people aged 15-19, who were recruited through the NSPCC, Childline and the National Crime Agency. The research focused on TA-CSA in particular, but sexual abuse often involves both offline and online contexts and environments.
Professionals were asked how they perceive TA-CSA, and what impact they think it has on young people.
Authors: Dr Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis, Dr Elly Hanson, Dr Helen Whittle and Professor Anthony Beech
Characteristics of TA-CSA
- Technology can give perpetrators of abuse easier access to young people.
- The online environment can hide abusive dynamics that would be more obvious in face to face relationships.
- Being unable to escape from an abusive person because they are in frequent contact through technology can make young people feel powerless.
- Online devices enable perpetrators of abuse to communicate with young people at night-time, when they're at home, and to control their "night-time space".
- A key feature of TA-CSA is threatening to share sexual images of the young people with their friends and family. This is a powerful tool used by perpetrators to stop young people from speaking out about the abuse. Perpetrators may also pressure young people into complying with sexual requests online.
- The technological dimension can prevent some young people from recognising their experiences as abuse.
The impact of TA-CSA
TA-CSA has as much impact on a child as offline CSA. The young people we interviewed told us how being sexually abused had affected them. They experienced:
- flashbacks or intrusive thoughts
- depression and low self-esteem
- nightmares and trouble sleeping
- anxiety and panic attacks
- problems at school, such as difficulty keeping up with work or behavioural problems.
Sometimes, the use of technology in CSA caused additional psychological effects.
- Fear of sexual images being shared online or being viewed in the future.
- Being filmed led some young people to feel uncomfortable around cameras.
- Young people who had been in constant contact with the person who abused them via digital technology could become very fatigued – this was especially the case if they were in contact at night time.
- Some of the young people interviewed felt that the initial abuse had made them more vulnerable to further abuse by sexualising them, leading them to drink heavily or take risks or reducing their sense of self-worth and confidence.
- A high proportion of young people blamed themselves for the abuse. This appeared to be triggered or made worse by unsupportive approaches from school, peers and family.
Young people's advice
To prevent CSA and TA-CSA, young people think professionals should:
- provide good education on healthy relationships, abuse and consent from a young age
- recognise the seriousness of CSA, including TA-CSA
- take time to understand the impact of abuse better, notice the signs of abuse and engage in purposeful conversations with young people about it
- improve the approach of the criminal justice system so that:
- the legal process is explained in a way that a young person can understand
- professionals are friendly and make the young person feel as comfortable as possible
- young people are offered choices where possible
- a consistent officer is provided
- the young person receives regular updates on the case.
Professionals' responses to TA-CSA
- Professionals aren't always clear what is meant by online abuse. They may not realise the full range of technologies that can be used to facilitate CSA. They may also think abuse that happens online and offline are entirely separate, without understanding that the 2 can be entwined. This could mean they don't ask young people about the involvement of technology in abuse nor offer them appropriate support after experiencing TA-CSA.
- Some professionals felt that children who experienced CSA offline are less likely to be blamed or stigmatised than those who experience TA-CSA. They felt that young people may worry about this, impacting on their disclosure and recovery.
- Some professionals highlighted that children and young people who experienced TA-CSA don't always recognise their experience as abuse.
- Professionals need more training on the nature and impact of online abuse. Some professionals suggested that this should be provided to a range of practitioners working with young people, including teachers.
"He would make me send pictures of myself, very inappropriate pictures, erm, videos of me in the shower, doing all sorts of things, and make me Skype him or use MSN to perform all sorts of sexual acts and I didn’t ... I didn’t want to. I was being blackmailed because he said that I know where you live, I know this, I know that, I’ll come and harm your family if you don’t do this, and I felt like it’s never going to stop."
"On online media ... everything comes across wrong and it was really hard for me to deal with on the media because I just wanted to go up to their face and be like, look stop it now, delete things off your phone, I won’t tell anyone, just stop, but I couldn’t because every time I tried to send a message it was, shut up you have no say in this."
"I was groomed when I was 14 and I’m 18 now, so even four years later it still affects me every day. I definitely don't think about it as often as I used to, but I do still think about it a lot."
"I think a lot of the reason I denied what was happening with me was because I thought, erm, this doesn't happen to kids, like kids don't experience like domestic violence – that's clearly something that happens like when you’re older. And so, I think a lot of that was why I denied it, because I thought I was too young to be experiencing this ... I think getting taught a bit more about, erm, like power dynamics and stuff and like what ... what constitutes a healthy relationship like might have helped."
Please cite as: Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. et al (2017) "Everyone deserves to be happy and safe": a mixed methods study exploring how online and offline child sexual abuse impact young people and how professionals respond to it (PDF). London: NSPCC.