What we’ve learned about young people who display technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour

Vicki Hollis and Emma Belton share key findings from our literature review and research exploring the backgrounds and behaviours of young males who display harmful sexual behaviour using the internet and digital technology

Mobile phone imageDevelopments in technology have changed the way young people interact with each other. As well as offering young people new opportunities the online world can also pose new threats, particularly in relation to sexualised content and behaviours online.

Research about the way young people display harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) online or using digital technology is limited. Practitioners working with young people who display this form of HSB therefor have limited evidence to inform their work. They can end up drawing on aAssessment tools and intervention guides that wereare generally designed for young people who display HSB offline. This could mean practitioners are unable put the most appropriate support in place or don’t have enough information to assess risk.

The NSPCC collaborated with the AIM project, to develop an evidence-based guidance tool to assist practitioners assessing young people who display HSB online or using mobile communication channels (we call this technology assisted HSB or TA-HSB). Our review of the evidence exploring TA-HSB identified very little pre-existing research; just 4 studies looked at the behaviours of young males who view indecent images of children online. So, we carried out our own research exploring the behaviours, backgrounds and characteristics of children and young people who display TA-HSB.

We looked at 275 case files from our therapeutic service, Turn the Page, to find out the prevalence of TA-HSB. We also carried out an in-depth study of a sub-sample of 91 young males.


We identified 5 key findings from our literature review and research. Some of these are in line with previous research findings about adolescent males. Other findings are slightly different and expand on what we already knew from the literature. 

1. Children and young people engage in a range of TA-HSB

Our research identified that almost half (46%) of the children and young people accessing Turn the Page had engaged in some form of TA-HSB. Most of these engaged in both offline HSB and TA-HSB (we call this dual HSB). Just 7% of our sample engaged in TA-HSB only. The type of technology-assisted behaviours young people engaged in ranged from sexting and making and distributing indecent images of children to developmentally inappropriate use of pornography (we defined this as accessing pornography under the age of 12, looking at extreme or illegal pornography and using pornography in an excessive or obsessive way).

2. The level of association between TA-HSB and offline HSB is variable

Previous research drawing upon recorded offence rates indicates little overlap between the viewing of indecent images of children and offline contact sexual offences. However our research found it was rare for TA-HSB to occur in the absence of offline HSB. This may be because our research included the full spectrum of TA-HSB (including sexual harassment, sending sexual texts, and the developmentally inappropriate use of pornography) and did not focus solely on indecent images of children.

In our research the overlap between TA-HSB and offline HSB differed according to which type of HSB had been displayed first. Some young males’ TA-HSB was limited to the developmentally inappropriate use of pornography (this was considered to be harmful because they were under the age of 12, were obsessed with viewing pornography or were viewing extreme pornographic material). Over half of these young males displayed offline HSB that was directly triggered by their use of pornography.

Other young males displayed a wider range of TA-HSB including making and distributing indecent images of under-18s. On average their TA-HSB was displayed 3 years after they had first displayed offline HSB. For these young people there was less association between online and offline.

3. Young males view and share indecent images of children for a range of reasons

Some young males looked at sexual images of peers or searched for pornography involving similarly-aged young people. These images are illegal but may have been accessed for developmentally appropriate reasons. Others viewed and shared indecent images in a more harmful and developmentally inappropriate way, such as intentionally seeking out sexual images of younger children and persuading others to create new indecent images.

4. Young males who display TA-HSB tend to have more stable backgrounds than those involved in offline HSB

Compared to those who only displayed offline HSB or dual HSB, the young males in our sample who only displayed TA-HSB tended to be older when they first displayed HSB and when they were referred to our service. They had more stable childhoods, less experience of trauma and more positive relationships with their parents. In contrast those who displayed dual HSB and those who only displayed offline HSB, may have experienced more challenges during their childhood. These groups of young people are therefore likely to have different motivations for engaging in harmful sexual behaviour.

5. The professional response to those with TA-HSB is more punitive than those with offline HSB

We discovered variations in the way professionals recognise and understand TA-HSB and a tendency towards a more punitive response to TA-HSB than offline HSB. Young people who displayed TA-HSB were more likely to have been involved with the police or youth offending service or been excluded from school because of their HSB. Children and young people who displayed offline HSB were more likely to be on a child protection plan or to receive therapeutic intervention for their HSB. This may be in recognition of the higher levels of trauma and family disruption amongst this group and may also reflect the current focus of therapeutic services, which are largely targeted at offline harmful sexual behaviour.

Conclusion 

In order to develop an effective risk assessment specifically for young people who display TA-HSB we need to learn much more about their characteristics and behaviours. Because a substantial proportion of children and young people may engage in both TA-HSB and offline HSB we should also aim to provide an integrated, holistic assessment of harmful sexual behaviour.

Informed by our research findings, the NSPCC and AIM project have developed the TA-HSB practice guidance to help practitioners assess the risks arising from an adolescent’s technology assisted HSB. A training package is also available. This is designed to complement existing assessment tools for HSB until a more integrated assessment can be developed.

The full findings of our review of the research on young people who display HSB online and research exploring TA-HSB are available on the Impact and Evidence Hub.

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