Sexual abuse and digital media
Here, you can read about how Save the Children understands child sexual abuse material and how digital abuse can take place. You can also read about what we know about the children who are exposed to abuse, what the consequences are, and what we know about those who commit abuse.
Child sexual abuse material
Save the Children uses the term “child sexual abuse material” rather than “child pornography” or “child porn,” as these terms trivialize what the material covers: the documentation of the sexual abuse of children. Children around the world are exposed to sexual abuse every day. Some of these acts of abuse are videoed and/or photographed.
Unfortunately, digital image technologies together with the ease with which material is shared on the Internet have turned child sexual abuse material into a large and growing industry. Behind every picture hides a victim of sexual abuse.
How does digital sexual abuse take place?
Digital communication and social media have created new opportunities for people to contact one another.
Unfortunately, these contact options are also used for sexual assault and abuse, which in some cases takes place “online”; that is, without physical contact between the offender and the victim. Nevertheless, the consequences of such digital assaults can be just as severe as physical sexual assaults.
Digital abuse on a computer, tablet, or mobile phone can involve random, offensive requests, such as a stranger asking a child or young person on a chat platform if they are interested in sex or sending unwanted nude photos.
The abuse can also be part of a friendship that has developed over a long time on the Internet - so-called grooming - where a person entices and manipulates a child to participate in various activities that are intended to satisfy the offender sexually.
At Save the Children, we are experiencing increasing numbers of cases involving children and young people who have been persuaded to pose in front of webcams—and who subsequently regret having done so. In some cases, the material is distributed on the Internet, in others it is used as blackmail for further sexual abuse, possibly even involving a physical meeting with the abuser.
Who is subjected to digital sexual abuse?
Boys and girls of all ages and from all social strata can fall victim to digital and sexual abuse.
While there is a tendency for teenage girls to be the most vulnerable when it comes to sexual abuse that begins with contact on the Internet, the number of cases where boys have been manipulated to participate in sexual activities is increasing.
Children who are in a vulnerable position—such as lacking a safe home environment, experiencing loneliness, or simply not thriving in general—are at higher risk of sexual abuse. They are more susceptible to the attention and manipulation that a person looking for a victim uses to make the abuse possible. It is important to point out that a child is not subjected to abuse because they are particularly vulnerable, but rather because an adult exploits or abuses that vulnerability to commit the abuse—whether physically or digitally.
What are the consequences of digital sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse is traumatizing to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the extent and the circumstances.
It is largely about the child’s experience of being cheated, tricked, and deceived, and the considerable breach of trust in others that comes with the abuse. The shame and guilt associated with abuse makes it difficult to talk about it and seek help.
Some of the burdensome effects of abuse become apparent immediately, others manage to suppress and repress the burdens, which then fester and can cause emotional problems. Others first experience emotional reactions later in life in connection with, for example, puberty, romantic relationships, or upon becoming parents.
Who commits sexual abuse?
The image of a child molester wearing a trench coat in a van parked close to a playground rarely matches with reality—because the adults who sexually assault children are a very diverse group of people.
The new trends in the digital space are that children and young people can also violate other children or peers, sometimes enticing or threatening them to send sexual images or videos, which, once forwarded, in the legal sense becomes sexual abuse material.
A sexual offender can be a trusting person who is difficult to suspect of sexually exploiting a child or young person. Behind much of the sexual abuse of children is an adult who has had sexual fantasies about children for a long time.