Statistics on child abuse Comparing statistics

Is child abuse increasing or decreasing?

Boy sitting against a garage doorWe don't know exactly how many children are experiencing abuse at any given time. But we are able to use research studies to estimate how many children have experienced abuse. And we are able to use official statistics to tell us about abuse that is recorded by the authorities.

Official statistics are published annually so we can use these to look at whether abuse being reported to the authorities is increasing or decreasing year-on-year. We also publish annual statistics on the number of children contacting ChildLine and the number of adults contacting our helpline.

However an increase in abuse reported does not necessarily mean that more children are being abused.

There are a number of reasons why the amount of abuse being reported may increase:

  • improved training will lead to professionals being better at recognising the signs of abuse
  • increased awareness amongst the public will mean they recognise the signs of abuse; they understand that they can play a role in protecting children and they know how to report their concerns
  • increased awareness work with children and young people will encourage them to tell someone about what is happening to them
  • a high profile child abuse case in the media often leads to increased referrals and the authorities being more likely to intervene where there are concerns
  • an increase in the child population may lead to an increase in abuse being identified and reported, simply because there are more children. Comparing the rates of children who are affected by abuse (so the number per 10,000 children) allows us to say whether the proportion of children identified is increasing or decreasing.

Official statistics might also show a decrease in the amount of abuse being recorded. This might be due to:

  • changes in what is recorded, or the way things are recorded (this includes changes in thresholds because of pressure on resources)
  • changes in the way abuse is responded to, such as agencies intervening at an earlier stage before concerns become more serious.

How Safe are our Children? 2015 looks in more detail at trends in statistics over recent years. 

We can also look at research to see how children’s experiences have changed over time. However it is very difficult to compare research studies to measure whether child abuse levels are rising or falling. 

Every research study is different. They ask different questions, or ask the same questions in different ways. They are designed and carried out in different ways. They use different samples of the population.

As society changes, so do the ways that children experience the world and our attitudes towards what child abuse looks like. So what society thinks of as acceptable ways for parents to punish their children has evolved. The rise in technology means that child abuse images can be more easily accessed and more widely shared. As most children today have mobile phones, bullying now looks very different from when it mostly happened at school. This means that over time, the questions in the research studies need to change.

How do child abuse levels compare across the UK?

Each of the UK nations are responsible for producing their own guidance around child abuse and child protection, and for publishing their own official statistics. This means it can be difficult to make direct comparisons between the nations. 

How safe are our children? 2015 looks in more detail at statistical trends in all four nations over recent years. 

Official statistics are collated at a local authority level. This means it is possible to make comparisons between local authorities. This shows there are considerable differences between levels of abuse recorded by different authorities. 

There may be various reasons for this including:

  • different populations, in terms of size and demographics
  • different policies, procedures and practice between local authorities
  • how well multi-agency arrangements work
  • targeted local activity to raise awareness, or tackle specific issues, such as a focus on reducing long-term neglect cases.

How do child abuse levels in the UK compare with other countries?

Beliefs about what is harmful to children vary across different societies. This means that the definitions of child abuse are different in different countries. What is understood, recognised and recorded as child abuse varies because of different cultural attitudes, different civil and criminal legislation and different definitions of when a child becomes an adult. This means it is difficult to make international comparisons around levels of child abuse.

UNICEF publish reports that look at child wellbeing indicators across countries:

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