Friday, May 29, 2020

Child Sexual Abuse Imagery in the Pandemic: Taking the Public Health Direction as We Emerge Into the New “Normal”

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, Kieran McCartan, PhD, & Kasia Uzieblo, PhD

With endorsements by former Prime Minister Theresa May and Eric Schmidt, an Executive Chairman for Google, Internet Watch Foundations (IWF), a charity organization that works to remove child abuse imagery from the internet, reports having had nearly 133,000 such webpages of taken down in 2019. IWF’s 2019 data is sobering: 46% of the imagery they report to law enforcement was of children age ten or younger, 92% was of females, and 1% was of children aged two or younger. Twenty percent showed sexual activity between adults and children, “including rape or sexual torture including self-penetration.” Another 20% included images of non-penetrative sexual activity. What is less clear at present is to what extent these findings from this spring have outpaced the same period last year. IWF’s data from 2019 shows the greatest growth in indecent images of children not falling in the above categories. In the UK this has lead Simon Bailey, police lead on child sexual exploitation online, to state that we cannot simply arrest our way out of the issue of child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) and online sexual exploitation. We need another approach.

With an unseen number of people around the world confined to their homes, a significant rise in these numbers is expected. Unfortunately, these worries are being confirmed. Last week, The Daily Mail, a British newspaper reported that during the months of March and April of this year, there were 8.8 million attempts to view child abuse images online from the UK. The increase is not unique the UK.  Countries around the world are sounding the alarm: they report a staggering demand for child abuse images. For instance, a recent study by the India Child Protection Fund noted an increase of almost 200% in access to these images since a nationwide lockdown was implemented. A higher demand prompts higher production rates, as observed in countries like the Philippines. Untold millions of families lost their income during the lockdown, creating an incentive for peddling child abuse images. Stop it Now! Flanders (Belgium) signals another worrisome pattern in help-seeking behavior. Before the pandemic most calls (80%) came from people who were worried about their own behavior, whereas 20% came from worried family members and friends. Now an opposite pattern is being observed, with 65% calls coming from others.

Picking up where recent blogs have left off, it is clear that these numbers, like the activities they describe, are completely unacceptable. Understanding them is nearly paradoxical: On one hand, they make clear what professionals in the field have known for years: that sexual abuse is not perpetrated by a small number of individuals but is best considered from a public-health perspective. On the other hand, the numbers are so vast that it is easy to lose sight of the harm done to the individuals involved, calling to mind the famous quote from Joseph Stalin that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

All of this raises the question of how we can start to combat the challenges of CSEM and online sexual abuse in the new world order. This is difficult because we do not know what the new normal will be, but what we do know is that online platforms and the internet will be a significant element in moving forward. It’s about collaboration! The notion of the internet as unregulated space will have to change significantly as we have seen new forms of problematic and anti-social behavior creeping in, like “Zoombombing” that won’t simply go away. We think that more than just a criminal justice approach is needed to combat and prevent online sexual abuse. Any solution requires a multidisciplinary public health approach.  Instead of responding to the offence, we need to think about how we intervene pre-offence (primary and secondary prevention) and post offence (tertiary and quandary prevention), as well as a range of social groups/frames (individual, personal, community and societal). Currently, we focus on the individual and societal elements, sending out strong primary and tertiary prevention messages, but we need to do more in helping those at risk to abuse. The access and impact of CSEM as well as online abuse is going to continue in an adapted way. Like everything else in a pandemic, life and behavior find new ways to adapt and thrive. Let’s take stock, reevaluate, and move forward with purpose.

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