Exploring technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour The characteristics of children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviours using online and mobile channels

Boy holding a mobile phone in a gardenTechnology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour (TA-HSB) is when children and young people use the internet or other technology to engage in sexual activity that may be harmful to themselves and others. TA-HSB covers a range of behaviour including the developmentally inappropriate use of pornography, online sexual abuse, grooming, sexting.

Little is known about the full range of TA-HSB displayed by children and young people. So we carried out research to explore:

  • how many young people participating in our service for harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) have engaged in TA-HSB
  • their backgrounds and characteristics
  • links between TA-HSB and offline HSB
  • how professionals respond to TA-HSB.

This is the biggest and most comprehensive study of TA-HSB in the UK to date. It is part of our Impact and evidence series.

Authors: Vicki Hollis and Emma Belton
Published: 2017

We analysed data from our Turn the Page service, which supports children and young people aged 5-18 who display harmful sexual behaviour (HSB). We looked at the prevalence of technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour (TA-HSB) across the service between January and October 2015 (275 cases). We also did an in-depth analysis of case file data from a sample of 91 boys and young men.

Prevalence of TA-HSB displayed by young people

  • 46% of all the children and young people who were assessed for Turn the Page displayed some form of TA-HSB, including 7% who only displayed TA-HSB with no offline HSB.

Range of TA-HSB displayed by boys and young men

  • Within the sample of boys and young men, the most common form of TA-HSB was the possession, making and/or distribution of indecent images of children (this includes sexting images). Other behaviours included:
    • developmentally inappropriate use of pornography
    • sexual harassment
    • grooming
    • sending sexual texts, including sexting without images
    • exposing other children and young people to pornography.
  • 68% of the boys and young men in our sample engaged in more than one form of TA-HSB. In most cases their TA-HSB was displayed towards another person.
  • Of the boys and young men who displayed both offline and TA-HSB, 2 sub-groups were identified:
    • those whose TA-HSB solely involved the developmentally inappropriate use of pornography
    • those who engaged in other forms of TA-HSB which tended to be aimed at another person.

Characteristics of boys and young men who display TA-HSB

  • On average the boys and young men in our selection who displayed TA-HSB without any offline HSB:
    • were older when they began displaying HSB
    • were from more stable families
    • had better relationships with their parents
    • had fewer recorded mental health difficulties
    • had less unresolved trauma
    • had fewer problems with impulsivity, emotional regulation, anger or aggression towards themselves and others.

Links between TA-HSB and offline HSB

  • The developmentally inappropriate use of pornography was identified as a trigger for offline HSB in more than half of the cases where boys and young men displayed both offline and TA-HSB. In contrast, other forms of TA-HSB were more likely to follow on from offline HSB and occurred, on average, 3 years later.
  • Children and young people were often found to display both TA-HSB and offline HSB and the 2 should therefore be explored together rather than being treated as 2 distinct behaviours.

Professional responses to TA-HSB

  • Professionals seemed to take a more therapeutic approach towards the boys and young men who displayed offline HSB than they did with those who only displayed TA-HSB. This may be because the children who displayed offline HSB experienced higher levels of trauma and family disruption and were more likely to already be receiving support from children's social care services. It may also relate to the current focus of therapeutic services which are largely targeted at offline HSB.
  • Professionals seemed to respond in a more punitive way to boys and young men who displayed TA-HSB only: the police and youth offending services had more involvement with them than with those who only displayed offline HSB or who displayed both offline and TA-HSB. Those who only displayed TA-HSB also had a greater rate of exclusion from school because of their HSB.
  • Professionals need more training on:
    • the different types of TA-HSB
    • the severity of this behaviour
    • how to recognise and respond to children and young people with TA-HSB more effectively.
  • Current interventions and referral forms for HSB are not always suitable for, or easy to adapt to, TA-HSB. It could be helpful for professionals if tools and interventions focussing specifically on TA-HSB were developed.
Acknowledgements 6
Glossary of terms 7
Key findings 8
Executive summary 10
Background 15
Characteristics of the children and young people who display TA-HSB 20
Association between online and offline sexual offending in children and young people 22
Rationale for the current research 24
Methods 25
Results and discussion 31
Hypothesised trajectories of HSB for young males with TA-HSB only and those with dual HSB 49
Strengths and limitations of the research 61
Need for further research 63
Conclusion 65
References 66
Appendices 72

Please cite as: Hollis, V. and Belton, E. (2017) Children and young people who engage in technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour; a study of their behaviours, backgrounds and characteristics. London: NSPCC.

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