By Minne De Boeck, Kasia Uzieblo, Isabelle Eens & Larissa Van Puyvelde Dutch affiliation of ATSA, NL-ATSA
The virtual world is a world that is complex and is continuously evolving; so it is not surprising that different facets of this world are still unknown for many. However, this world is very relevant to our field. The online world is an attractive environment for child sexual abuse (CSA) because of its affordability, accessibility, and especially its anonymity. Online CSA has an enormous scope, though the effective prevalence is unknown. What we do know is that it has been increasing in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed many vulnerabilities in this context. In June 2020, Europol published a report on the increase in online CSA in terms of downloading sexual abuse images, (potential) perpetrators and (potential) victims active on social media, instant messaging, etc. Justice and treatment services indicate that this increase goes hand in hand with very big challenges in dealing with the issue. The main challenge is to tackle this problem at its cause: As long as there is demand, there will be supply. Reasons enough, to pay attention to the approach of internet offenders.
On November 25, NL-ATSA, the Dutch affiliation of ATSA, organized an online webinar on online sex offenders. The webinar included three plenary sessions, of which one extended session on the assessment and treatment of internet offenders which was provided by two ATSA colleagues.
The first presenter, Madeleine van der Bruggen (the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children), focused on the criminal processes identified on the dark web. She analysed forums where images of child sexual abuse were distributed and shared. She explained that online CSA on dark web forums often takes place in four phases: The first phase is preparation, where the actor prepares himself to participate in the activities on a forum. After this, one enters the pre-activity phase. This phase, which precedes the actual online CSA, is mainly characterized by the development of a dark web identity, introducing him/herself to the forum members, and getting to know the process of online CSA. Then the actors become active on the forum (i.e., the activity phase), and start communicating and exchanging experiences with each other. These activities -thus, including criminal behaviours- take place in an atmosphere of recognition, respect, and trust. Van der Bruggen observed a sense of togetherness, which was facilitated mainly by a common goal (online CSA). The final, post-activity phase refers to the situation when someone has been active on the forum but wants to end his activities. This is often announced, and rules of conduct are also agreed upon this, so that others would not think that these individuals had been arrested and could pose a threat for further criminal activities. In addition to the anonymity efforts the dark web offers, the social component is also an important part of online CSA on the dark web. The members engage in long-term personal relationships, which go beyond merely exchanging images and experiences. They build up a relationship of trust with others on the dark web and it makes them feel part of a specific social community. For some these online relationships may even take over the role of social relationships in real life. Van der Bruggen identified two offender profiles, dependent on their role on the forum. First, there is the ‘management’ who is responsible for maintaining the forum and also for specifying the rules of conduct. Second, there are people who are technically inclined, give advice on online CSA, and/or support others; these individuals are the so-called ‘key players’. Van der Bruggen thus emphasized the importance of insights into the organisation of the dark web and the different roles regarding online CSA to adapt the treatment of internet offenders accordingly.
The second presenter, Cyril Boonmann (University Psychiatric Clinics, Basel, Switzerland), focused on online sex offending among adolescents. H he stated that the internet is part of adolescent sexual development, with pornography having both positive and negative effects on young people. Despite several positive effects it may have, the study ‘EU Kids Online’ (2020) indicates that about 20% of the children between 9 and 16 years old has been confronted with unwanted sexual exposure. Notably, research on child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) use among adolescents is limited. The few studies suggest that adolescent perpetrators are predominantly Caucasian young men of whom a minority exhibits some other sex-offender behaviour. The adolescent CSEM offenders seem to exhibit fewer other forms of sex-offending behaviour and less traumatic experiences compared to adolescents who commit hands-on sexual offences. Sexting is also an important topic to consider. In that regard, Boonmann distinguishes between experimental behaviour or behaviour with aggravating circumstances to delineate delinquent behaviour (i.e. sending sexual content without consent) from sexual experimentation. Sexting between adolescents should only be problematized and tackled in the latter case. Next to CSEM and ‘problematic’ sexting, online CSA also includes cybergrooming. One in five minors indicates having experienced cybergrooming, with almost half of the perpetrators being minors. Boonmann concluded with some tips and tricks for clinical practice in working with adolescents committing online CSA. He suggested incorporating modern technologies in therapy and highlighting the dangers and difficulties of social media, pornography, and internet use. However, he also stressed the importance of including the positive aspects of the internet and pornography during treatment.
In the final part of this webinar, Dr. Anton Schweighofer (R. Psych., Canada) and Dr. Lyne Piché (R. Psych., Canada), focused on clinical practice with internet offenders. They also observed a significant increase in the number of men who come into contact with the criminal justice system because of online CSA. As a result, treatment providers are challenged to develop innovative -and as far as possible- evidence-based treatment plans. Dr. Schweighofer and dr. Pyché gave insights into relevant typologies and theoretical frameworks for understanding internet offenders. One of the typologies they discussed is the division between fantasy driven and contract-driven online offenders. The former group experiences more intimacy problems exhibit more arousal to deviant sexual material watches more extreme forms of material and is more intensively involved with the internet. The contact-driven group tends to endorse and justify the sexual agency of children more often and exhibits more antisocial behaviour. Next, they reviewed assessment requirements and clinical assessment tools currently available. With regard to risk assessment, they suggested using the CPORT, which is, for now, the only instrument to map the static risk factors for online CSA, in combination with the STABLE-2007 to solely obtain insights into the dynamic risk factors and to identify the most important treatment goals. The Static-99R can’t be scored in this population but may provide additional information on any static risk factors present in the client. They further recommended the use of questionnaires to assess the clients’ attitudes and cognitions (e.g., Internet Behaviours and Attitudes Questionnaire; IBAQ). Clinicians should also have the courage to ask questions about the clients’ specific sexual fantasies and behaviours, such as probing for what the most exciting images are for the client. Based upon research and their extensive clinical experience, they suggested the treatment needs to be based on an understanding of both static and dynamic risk factors, and unique treatment elements like sexual health, internet safety, sexual self-regulation, intimacy, self-hygiene (e.g., sleep cycle) as well as the use of internet resources for treatment purposes. They also recommend involving family members in the treatment process, as they are also affected by the online CSA, and given that these members may have a significant impact on the feasibility of the treatment goals. Finally, they gave two essential tips for treatment providers for internet offenders: ‘Don’t do this work in isolation' and self-care must not be forgotten.
The fact that this symposium was attended by over 100 practitioners (psychologists, psychiatrists, probation officers to name a few) from the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as the grateful feedback during and after the event, illustrates that many practitioners acknowledge this growing problem and look for tools on how to deal with internet offenders in practice. It also became clear that this target group is relatively ‘uncharted’ territory for many professionals and that there is a great need for more research and sharing best practices.