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Published 26.06.23

Studies reveal extent of sexual violence against children

Torsten Krause, SDC

In June 2023, the Finnish organization Suojellan Lapsia, Protect Children ry. published a special evaluation of the study CSAM Users in the Dark Web: Protecting Children Through Prevention, in order to raise awareness about results and findings regarding German-speaking users of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on the Darknet.

The main study comprised around 24,000 people who searched for child sexual abuse material on the darknet and were there redirected to the survey. By means of the questionnaire, they were asked about their feelings and behaviour, their motives, possible obstacles to searching for child sexual abuse material, and about direct contact to children. It was found that 66 percent of the respondents were younger than 18 when they first came across child sexual abuse material online, 40 percent are consuming child sexual abuse material in livestreaming, and a majority of the perpetrators is prefering CSAM depicting girls. As a result of consuming such violent acts or images, 42 percent of the perpetrators actively sought direct contact to children via online platforms.

In the special evaluation of German-speaking perpetrators, it became clear that almost one in two (49 percent) of them came across child sexual abuse material online for the first time randomly, around one in five while looking for other material of sexual violence (19 percent) and 15 percent via social contacts. A total of 70 percent of the perpetrators came across such depictions unintentionally or by chance. With 41 percent, the largest proportion of respondents was 13 years old or even younger when they first encountered child sexual abuse material in social media, through unsolicited messages sent via messenger, by using search engines or in the context of private communication. Just under a third of the perpetrators (29 percent) were between 14 and 17 years old at the time of their first encounter, while 16 percent came across such depictions for the first time between the ages of 18 and 25.

With regard to their desire to seek contact to children in the aftermath of viewing CSAM, 54 percent of the persons stated they were familiar with such thoughts. 49 percent of respondents have already translated such thoughts into action. The proportion of German-speaking perpetrators seeking contact to children after consuming child sexual abuse material is thus higher than the overall average (42 percent). The majority of German-speaking respondents (40 percent) prefer CSAM of girls between the ages of 4 and 13. Deviating from the results of the overall study (18 percent) it was shown that 24 percent also prefer depictions of boys between the ages of 4 and 13.

The findings of the Finnish study correspond with a recent publication by the WeProtect Global Alliance. On June 12, 2023, the organisation released its findings from a global survey of 18- to 20-year-olds who experienced sexual harassment or violence during childhood titled Estimates of childhood exposure to online sexual harassment and their risk factors. According to the survey, a total of 54 percent of participants experienced sexual violence before they turned 18, and with 57 percent, girls were more often affected than boys (48 percent). The survey investigated four different aspects of potential sexual harassment or acts of violence. For example, the survey asked whether respondents had been asked to do something explicitly sexual online when they were minors that they did not want to do or were uncomfortable with (34 percent), whether they had explicit sexual depictions of them shared with others without their consent (29 percent), whether they had received explicit sexual depictions from an adult or someone they did not know (29 percent), or, whether an adult known to them or someone they did not know had asked them to keep part of their sexually explicit online communication confidential (25 percent).

When assessed regionally, it appears that young people in the surveyed countries of North America (71 percent), Australia and New Zealand (67 percent), and Western Europe (65 percent) are reporting a higher risk of having a sexually distressing online experience than do young people in Central Africa (31 percent), Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East/North Africa (44 percent each), or Latin America (49 percent).

Beyond the findings regarding the variants of sexual harassment and acts of violence, the survey gives evidence that children are increasingly younger when they first experience such behaviour While today's 20-year-olds stated they had had their first such experience at the age of 13.4, for today's 18-year-olds this was already the case at the age of 12.7. Two-third of the respondents had experienced sexualized violence directly on their smartphone via a communication service. In addition, minorities are at greater risk of experiencing correspondingly distressing encounters as evidenced by the research. For example, 59 percent of respondents who identify as transgender or non-binary compared to 47 percent of cisgender respondents, 65 percent of LGBQ+ respondents compared to 46 percent of heterosexual respondents, 57 percent of respondents with a disability compared to 48 percent of respondents without disabilities, and 58 percent of respondents who are perceived as a minority due to their origin compared to 49 percent of respondents belonging to the majority of origin report experiencing distress in a sexual context online.

Overall, the two studies reveal an increase in sexualized violence in the digital environment. It is clear that users of digital services unintentionally come across sexual violence online at a young age and are thus either harmed themselves or have a potential tendency to become perpetrators themselves. Both consequences must be counteracted by prevention and deletion of such content.

In its General Comment No. 25 on the rights of the child in the digital environment, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the states parties to actively promote the protection of young people in the digital environment. By means of appropriate regulations, resources to be deployed, safety-by-design and privacy-by-design, child sexual abuse online should also be prevented and combated in the services and products children use. The European Commission's proposal for a regulation laying down rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse, which is currently being discussed by the European Parliament and the Council, should also be looked at in this context.