Thousands of UK young people caught watching online child abuse images

Posted: 4th December 2023

Several thousand young people are being caught each year sharing or watching indecent images of children – including child abuse material – a Guardian investigation has revealed.

Figures obtained through freedom of information (FoI) requests to police forces across England, Wales and Northern Ireland show that in some regions the majority of people identified by police as watching or sharing indecent images of children are under 18.

While some of the child cases involved sexting [the consensual sharing of sexual images] between teens, others have been found watching “the most abhorrent material”, said detective chief inspector Tony Garner, who leads an online child sexual exploitation team based in Worcester.

“I’ve been in policing 20 years and have been scratching my head the past couple of years about the harm we are seeing,” Garner said. “It’s scary. As a country, as a society, it feels completely out of control.”

Garner said children were becoming “desensitised” by early exposure to pornography, with an “increasing interest in shocking material after being exposed to violent pornography”. Without intervention, children are becoming addicted to very harmful material, he said.

“Let’s say you are a 12-year-old boy and you look online for sexual videos of girls your own age,” he said. “It’s natural [that] young people will be curious in this way. But what they find is rape and abuse material. It’s horrific. Or we might find a 14-year-old boy who is uploading indecent images of himself, maybe he is being groomed or blackmailed.

“The erotic template is being formed by young people masturbating to increasingly extreme material … even paedophilic material.”

After stark warnings from child abuse experts and police that young people are increasingly seeking help after accessing illegal material, the Guardian sent FoI requests to the 43 police forces across England and Wales.

More than 6,000 children and teenagers were identified in 2022 across the 21 police forces who responded in full to the requests. A total of 3,591 children from the same forces were identified as watching or sharing online child abuse images between January and October this year.

In several regions, children and teenagers make up more than half of all individuals linked to illegal image viewing. In Cambridgeshire, the number of under-18s watching or sharing child abuse has risen from 78 out of 130 offenders in 2018 to 329 out of 417 in 2023.

In West Mercia, which covers Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire, 436 under-18s have been visited by officers so far this year despite it being one of the smaller forces in England.

For Northern Ireland, 301 out of 420 individuals identified in 2023 were under 18. Police Scotland, which covers the whole of Scotland, did not provide data.

Garner and other senior officers who responded to the Guardian stressed that the majority of visits to children and teenagers were treated as safeguarding with an emphasis on support not criminalisation.

recent report from the children’s commissioner of England warned that more than two-thirds of young adults said in a survey that they had seen violent pornography before turning 18. It also highlighted correlations between early exposure to porn and the development of harmful attitudes.

It is not yet clear how many of the child cases in the figures refer to the accessing of images of children being abused, but one charity says it has seen an increase in cases involving young people.

“The violent and degrading nature of what they see in porn confuses young people about what is appropriate,” said Rachel Haynes, the senior practitioner of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a child protection charity.

“Our young people tend to come via police referrals. But this isn’t sexting they have been involved with. They are viewing indecent images of children that they don’t know,” said Haynes. “We hear a lot about bulk file downloads. Young people may be looking for sexual images of teens their own age, but with that will come images of much younger children being raped.”

The foundation works with perpetrators of online child abuse, and last month launched a website called Shore for young people worried about their own sexual thoughts and behaviours.

Haynes said: “We can’t just blame pornography. There are other things going on: grooming or young people being isolated and spending too much time online.”

Police forces contacted by the Guardian agreed the data is concerning, with several mentioning a rise in what are termed “self-generated” images. Some were keen to stress that many teenagers choose to send sexual images to partners consensually.

Ian Critchley, who leads on child protection at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said all online sharing of sexual images needs addressing, even where it is not linked to abuse.

“The reality is also that images taken by a child and shared consensually can be shared onwards by others and the original taker can quickly lose control,” he said.

Police forces and charities called for the swift implementation of the online safety bill, which includes the implementation of age-verification measures to protect children from pornography.

  • If a child is concerned about images they may have shared themselves this can be reported via ChildLine’s joint service with the Internet Watch Foundation, ‘Report Remove’. You can also report child sexual abuse imagery via the same website. If you are concerned about a young person’s sexual behaviour, visit:


Source: Thousands of UK young people caught watching online child abuse images | Global development | The Guardian

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