Understanding the link between online and offline harmful sexual behaviour

Emma Belton and Vicki Hollis ask if there's a link between young people viewing child sexual abuse images online and contact sexual offending

TeenagerStudies estimate that around 3-15% of child sexual abuse image offences are committed by young people.

In 2015, nearly half of the cases involved in the NSPCC's Turn the Page harmful sexual behaviour services involved an element of online or image-related harmful sexual behaviour.

Only 4 research studies have looked in detail at young peoples' and adults' viewing of child sexual abuse images online. It's therefore difficult for practitioners to assess what level of risk these young people pose, and whether they may go on to commit a contact sexual offence.

This post is based on these 4 research studies.

Young people who view child sexual abuse images online


Young people who view child sexual abuse images online appear to come from more stable backgrounds than those with contact sexual offences.

However, they show greater sexual interest in children and have greater friendship difficulties.

Sexual re-offending rates amongst young people who view these images are low - lower than rates amongst young contact sexual offenders.

There only seems to be a small crossover between viewing child sexual abuse images and offline sexual offences.

Research with adult online sexual offenders

Key findings

Characteristics of young people who view child sexual abuse images replicate those of adult online sexual offenders. 

Research with these adults shows:

  • there's some overlap between online grooming and contact sexual offending
  • but some adults groom children and young people with the sole intention of sexually abusing them online
  • one study has reported the same types of grooming behaviours in young people
  • research with adult dual offenders (those involved in online and offline sexual offending) suggests they're more similar to contact sexual offenders.

Factors that may lead to contact sexual offending

Several factors may increase the risk of re-offending and contact sexual offending in adults.

These include:

  • prior contact sexual offending
  • prior criminal history
  • sexual interest in children
  • access to children
  • few psychological barriers to acting on deviant sexual interests.

We don't have comparable research to know whether the same is true for young people.

Assessing the risk

Currently, we know very little about which young people displaying online harmful sexual behaviour are most at risk of contact sexual offending.

Given the research findings, practitioners working with young people who view child sexual abuse images online, or engage in other harmful sexual behaviour online, should consider and explore past and future contact sexual offending.

However, contact sexual offending cannot be assumed. Research suggests it occurs amongst the minority of young people who view these images.

The reliability of the research

Magnifying glass

As existing research is minimal, we can't be confident the findings are representative of all young people who view child sexual abuse images.

Findings from research with adults, looking at the crossover between online and offline sexual offending, depend on how offending and re-offending is measured.

Studies that ask offenders to self-report sexual offences find higher crossover rates. Contact sexual offences are self-reported by 1 in 2 online offenders, particularly during treatment or when using a polygraph.

Studies that use officially detected offence data amongst adults report lower crossover rates, with contact sexual offences detected in 1 in 6 online offenders.

With this in mind, studies that look at groups of online and offline sexual offenders are likely to include hidden dual-offenders.

We need additional research

There are some parallels in the findings from research with young and adult online sexual offenders.

However more research is needed with young people to understand the link between online and offline harmful sexual behaviour. New studies should:

  • use larger samples of young people and involve girls and younger children
  • look more broadly at online harmful sexual behaviour in general - not just child sexual abuse images
  • explore past and future offline harmful sexual behaviour, picking up on self-reported information as well as officially detected sexual offending
  • look at young people who display dual online and offline harmful sexual behaviour and the risk factors for this crossover.

What the NSPCC's doing

We've completed a review of the research on young people who display harmful sexual behaviour online to improve knowledge and understanding in this area.

We're using findings to develop guidance for practitioners assessing these young people to support them with case formulation.

We're also carrying out research into the characteristics and behaviours of children and young people who access our Turn the Page programme with online or image-related harmful sexual behaviour.

Turn the Page

We protect children from the most common type of contact sexual abuse.
Turn the Page service

Read our latest report

You can read more about all the findings included in this post in our new report:

A review of the research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour online (HSB)

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