Sexual abuse and digital media

Digital media have become a natural part of the everyday lives of children and young people, and it has become easier to meet new people online via games, chat and social media. Unfortunately, this has also opened up new dangers regarding the occurrence of sexual digital abuse.

Here, you can read more about:

- Child sexual abuse material

- Tendencies regarding the digital abuse of children

- The consequences for the victims

If you are a professional working with children and adolescents, you can also find our teaching materials for school children about digital and sexual abuse on the Save the Children school site (only in Danish).

Child sexual abuse material

We use the term ’child sexual abuse material’ rather than 'child pornography' because it trivialises what the material covers: documentation of sexual abuse against children. Every day all over the world children are victims of sexual abuse. Sometimes abuse is filmed. Unfortunately digital technology and numerous ways of sharing on the internet has turned child sexual abuse material into a growing industry. Behind every image there is a victim of sexual abuse.

How does digital sexual abuse take place?

At all times, children have been subject to sexual abuse by adults and it still happens every day for many children. But with our new digital technology it is very easy to make pictures or films of the sexual assault. For some, as a memory of the sexual experience and to recall the feelings involved. For some, to share with or distribute to other persons with the same sexual interest in children. For some, these pictures represent a value that can be exchanged for other pictures or for money.

Our digital communication and the use of social media has brought about some new possibilities for people to get into contact with each other. Unfortunately, these possibilities are employed for the purpose of sexual abuse and assault as well. Some of these happens on the internet, that is to say, without physical contact between the victim and the abuser. However, these kinds of digital abuse may have just as great consequences as physical sexual abuse.  

Digital abuse on a computer, tablet or mobile phone can involve random events that violate the limits of an individual; for example, children and young people might be asked by a stranger with whom they are chatting about whether they are interested in sex or they might be sent unwanted naked pictures.

Such abuse can also occur as part of an online friendship that is established over an extended period of time – also called grooming – where the offender is ultimately able to get the victim to agree to various sexual activities.

At Save the Children, we experience an increasing number of cases involving children and adolescents who have been persuaded to pose in front of a webcam – and later regret having done so. In some such cases, the pictures are distributed on the Internet or used to manipulate the victim to participate in further sexual abuse, and eventually to a physical meeting with the abuser.

Who are the victims of digital sexual abuse?

Boys and girls of all ages and from all social levels and groups can fall victim to digital and sexual abuse. However, teenage girls tend to be the most vulnerable when it comes to sexual abuse that begins with online contact. But there are also cases in which boys are manipulated to take part in sexual activities.

Socially vulnerable children who might be feeling insecure or lonely are at higher risk of sexual abuse. They are more susceptible to the attention and manipulation that the offender uses to make the abuse possible.

By no means do the authorities become aware of all cases, as many victims are ashamed about being fooled by the offender and therefore do not tell anyone about what they have experienced.

What are the consequences of digital sexual abuse?

The extent of the trauma for the victim of a sexual abuse depends on multiple factors, including the extent and circumstances.

To a great extend it is about the victim's experience of being betrayed and deceived and the breach of trust to other people which follow in the wake of the abuse. Abuse is connected with shame and guilt which makes it hard for the victim to talk about it and seek help. Some of the most stressful conseqences may appear immediately, while other may be suppressed and replaced and result in a smoldering mental discomfort.

Who commits sexual abuse?

The image of a child molester with greasy hair wearing a trench coat is uncommon in real life. Adults who sexually abuse children are a very mixed group.

New tendencies in the digital world are that children and young adults may act abusive against other children or their peers. They may lure them into or threaten them to provide sexual images which, legally, are considered child pornography which it is shared.  

A sexual offender can be a trustworthy person who nobody would suspect would abuse a child or adolescent sexually.

Most of the cases involving the sexual abuse of a child involve an adult who has been having sexual fantasies about children for a long time.

Get help to deal with sexual fantasies about children

Working together with Mental Health Services in the Capital Region of Denmark (Region Hovedstadens Psykiatri) and the Janus Center, Save the Children has developed the website (in Danish) Here, adults with sexual fantasies about children can get help so that they will not live out their fantasies in real life.

Facts about digital and sexual abuse

-60% of boys’ unwanted sexual experiences with an adult began with an online meeting.

-77% of girls’ unwanted sexual experiences with an adult began with an online meeting.

Source: The Danish National Centre for Social Research, 2016

Anthology about digital abuse

Save the Children has published an anthology about digital abuse.

The Internet and social media have added new aspects to the understanding of how sexual abuse occurs online and the consequences it has for children and young people today.

Read more about the anthology and download it here.

What is child pornography?

Child pornography is defined as images and films depicting children involved in sexual activities, in sexual poses or images focused on the children’s sexual organs. We use the term ’images and videos of sexual abuse’.


Save the Children Denmark’s AnmeldDet (ReportIt) hotline is co-financed by the European Commission and is part of INHOPE, a global network of hotlines fighting child sexual abuse material on the Internet.