Young People, Sexual Content, and Solicitation Online

Kareena McAloney & Joanne E Wilson. Youth Culture and Net Culture: Online Social Practices. 2011.


The Internet can be viewed as the cornerstone of the modern world. When we talk about the “Internet” we are referring not only to the World Wide Web but also methods of electronic communication such as e-mails, chat-rooms and instant messaging. Undoubtedly the Internet is a valuable resource that puts people in connection with vast amounts of information (and in some cases, misinformation). The Internet is also a source of communication and support to many people and can facilitate cognitive, social and physical development (Guan & Subrahmanyam, 2009). Yet, it also opens the door to the transmission of harm and exploitation across communities and cultures, in no small part due to the lack of geographical restraints implicit in the World Wide Web. Despite the widespread acceptance and use of the internet within society, it is also shrouded in mystery and fear, particularly in relation to sex. This situation in not eased by a general lack of research and investigation in this area with much of the existing literature drawing from early research, which may be particularly problematic in an area with such a rapid developmental trajectory as that of the internet. Another particular difficulty which hampers the contemporary research and investigation of sex on the internet, and in particular on child pornography is the highly sensitive, and often illegal, nature of the information under study which restricts the ability of researchers to conduct a full investigation, and enforces a reliance on secondary sources of information.

Sex on the Internet

The growth of the Internet has allowed the rapid exchange of information over geographically diverse populations. The majority of children in the United Kingdom (UK) have access to the Internet either at home (75%) or at school (92%; Livingstone & Bober, 2005). Although most children spend less time on the Internet compared to watching television – less than one hour (Livingstone & Bober, 2005), the little time that they do spend surfing instills fear in many adults as there is the possibility that they may be exposed to unwanted sexually explicit material and solicitation from deviant individuals. There are several reasons as to why such concerns may be justified. First children are digital consumers – they have the skills and knowledge base to rapidly and extensively surf the net (Peter & Valkenburg, 2006). They are also capable and rather skilled at avoiding detection. For example, qualitative research by Cameron et al. (2005) found evidence that children can evade their parents’ efforts at control: “…indirect monitoring (e.g. checking history files) was easily thwarted by adolescents” (p.537). While for many children their first exposure to adult sexually explicit material occurs during adolescence offline via television or magazines, even the lyrics in songs subconsciously expose children to sexual innuendos, the lack of control and responsibility bestowed on the Internet means that children are likely to encounter sexual material online irrespective of whether they intended to or not. Children are also at risk of exploitation through the transmission and viewing of child victimization in child pornography; and its use by predators to attract and engage children and young people as potential victims for both sexual pleasure and financial gain (Esposito, 1998). The Internet can be used to facilitate this abuse in a number of ways and four key areas have been identified by which child molesters/sexual predators use the Internet: to disseminate sexualized images of children; to establish online networks with individuals with similar interests in children; to engage with children in an inappropriate and sexual manner; and to locate potential child victims for their sexual overtures and attentions (Durkin, 1997).

Exposure to Adult Sexual Material Online

The Internet is a vast source of sexual material including sexually explicit pictures, sexually explicit movies/clips and erotic sites (Peter & Valkenburg. 2006). Given the widespread availability of and accessibility to sexually explicit material online, it is not surprising that the Internet has been described as a “sexual medium” (p.178) with mounting concerns regarding children’s exposure to such material (Peter & Valkenburg, 2006). Such fears are not entirely unfounded. In a study of 2,880 children aged 10-16 years of age, Flander, Cosic & Profaca (2009) found that 27% had been exposed to human nudity and sexual activity online. Peter and Valkenberg (2006), in a survey of 745 Dutch adolescents aged between 13 to 18 years of age, also found that 71% of males and 40% of females were exposed to some form of sexually explicit material. One in five children in Canada report having found undesirable sexual material online (Media-Awareness, 2000), while one quarter of 7 – 16 year olds in the UK have been upset by online material (Wigley & Clark, 2000).

Children are often viewed as passive recipients to the information on the Internet; a view which fails to consider the active role children can play as digital consumers, actively seeking out such material online, whether to satisfy curiosity or a desire for sexual stimulation. Children are likely to be exposed to sexually explicit material through their own access, indeed, some of the sites most frequently visited by children and young people include “,,,,, and” all of which feature or facilitate the viewing of material which can be interpreted sexually (Escobar-Chaves et al., 2005, p.319). Ybarra and Mitchell (2005) reported that 68% of children from the Youth Internet Safety Survey intentionally sought to expose themselves to sexually explicit material both on- and off- line. Ybarra and Mitchell (2005) also reported evidence that those seeking out sexually explicit material were twice as likely to be older children (20% versus 8%; Ybarra & Mitchell, 2005). Where younger children did seek out sexually explicit material they were more likely to report traditional means of exposure lending support for their argument that those seeking out sexually explicit material “are simply age-appropriately curious about sex” (p.483). Part of the explanation is that there is a developmental curve such that the increase in age and biological changes that accompany puberty is matched with an increase in the young person’s interest in sex and involvement in sexual activities. The teenage years represent an important and critical developmental period characterized by increased risk taking, experimentation and identify exploration (Erikson, 1968) particularly in relation to their sexuality and sexual identity (Arnett, 1995). The extent to which exposure to sexually explicit material online is detrimental to young people remains unclear. This may be due to varying definitions as to what constitutes sexually explicit material, lack of clarity as to what aspects of sexually explicit material are harmful, distressing and even illegal, and the lack of censorship regarding such material online (Livingstone, 2003). Indeed, while it is generally thought that exposure to sexually explicit material online during adolescence may have an adverse impact on a child’s behaviour and sexual development, there is a lack of research accessing exposure to such material online with the focus very much on television exposure. Rideout (2001) suggests that any changes observed in older teenagers attitudes and beliefs towards sex are likely to be compounded by other media influences such as magazines and TV. Of this available evidence it would appear that adolescents’ actual experience is positively related to their increased exposure particularly via the television. In a review of empirical research on the role of the entertainment media (i.e. TV, magazines, films, sitcoms, magazine advertisements, music videos) in the sexual socialisation of children in the USA, Ward (2003) found that exposure to media such as soaps and music videos was occasionally related to greater levels of sexual experience. Wider cultural shifts regarding roles and expectations of men and women are also likely to have an influence such as the shift towards open discussions about sex, engaging in promiscuous sexual acts, and acceptance of casual attitudes towards sex as the norm. However, evidence supporting this remains a slow-burner and much of the research evidence base linking exposure to sexually explicit material online to resulting behavioural change is anecdotal. However there are a few noteworthy exceptions (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2005; Peter & Valkenburg, 2006). For example, Braun-Courville and Rojas (2009) found that adolescents who were exposed to sexually explicit websites were more likely to have multiple lifetime sexual partners, and engage in substance use.

Exposure to Pornography Online

Pornography has existed for a very long time, reflecting human curiosity and interest in the human form, and in the display of sexuality. However, as Chatterjee (2000) points out the Internet has revolutionized the pornography industry by facilitating anonymity of sources and ease of access for purveyors. Jenkins (2001) tracks the evolution of pornography transmission from nudes in paintings, to photographic images, video footage, and the use of Bulletin Based Sites on modem connected computers in the late 80s, to the ever evolving use of the Internet. According to the 2006 Internet Filter Review (Ropelato, 2007), around 12% of websites contain pornography (approximately 4.2 million), and around 100,000 websites host child pornography. Yet, despite some notable exceptions, “Internet pornography, and especially child pornography is rarely the topic of academic discourse” (Adams, 2002, p.135). This is surprising given that one in three teens have viewed pornography online (Kaiser Foundation, 2000) and Wolak, Mitchell and Finkelhor (2007) report in their 2005 survey of 1500 American youth aged 10-17, 42% had been exposed to online pornography within the preceding twelve months; with the average age of first exposure is around 11 years of age (Ropelato, 2007). While Wolak et al. (2007) report that the majority (66%) of young people’s exposure was unwanted, a sizeable minority (34%) actively sought out exposure to pornography online. Indeed, there is evidence that males are more likely to seek exposure to adult pornography (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2005; Peter & Valkenburg, 2006).

As noted by Carroll et al. (2008) Internet pornography has become an integral aspect of the lives of adolescents and emerging adults. However, children and young people may not always seek out sexually explicit material online and their exposure to such material instead may be unsolicited. In these instances the young people are exposed to unwanted sexual material. Mtichell, Finkelor and Wolak (2007a) examined trends in sexual solicitation, harassment and unwanted exposure to pornography online between 2000 and 2005. They found that the overall incidence has decreased but that an increase in unwanted exposure to pornography was apparent for 10-12 and 16-17 year olds, boys, whites and non-Hispanic youth. Unwanted exposure to adult pornography online occurs when pornography is distributed to the young person without them playing an active role in soliciting or receiving it. McAlinden (2006) notes that sex offenders often present potential child victims with pornographic material in a bid to sexualize their interactions. Similarly Langevin and Curnoe (2004) explored the use of pornography among over five hundred sex offenders and reported that 55% of offenders showed their victims pornographic material, and this was most likely among those with child victims rather than adult victims. Mitchell, Wolak and Finkelhor (2007) found a significant increase in the number of 10-12 year olds and 16-17 year olds reporting unwanted exposure to online pornography between 2000 and 2005. While many issues are raised regarding the viewing of adult material by youth, this is not the only type of sexual material available on the Internet. Child pornography represents a particularly disturbing niche within the pornography market, and one which is substantively distinct from adult pornography (Adams, 2002).

Child Pornography on the Internet

Edwards (2000) defines child pornography as a “record of the systematic rape, abuse and torture of children on film and photography and other electronic means” (p.1). Although the particular nature of the Internet makes it difficult to accurately assess the extent of child pornography on the Internet (Taylor & Quayle, 2003), the existing evidence reveals a substantial volume of child focused pornographic imagery and content online. The extent of child pornography online rose drastically during the 1990s (Taylor, et al, 2001). Yet between 2000 and 2005, the overall incidence of sexual solicitation, harassment and unwanted exposure to pornography online has decreased (Wolak, et al, 2007). Undoubtedly, the early rise resulted in public angst and concern with implications for legislation, government enforcement and policy to manage and control the growing trade of online child pornography and despite the lack of empirical evidence, policy regarding child pornography online continues to emerge and the issue continues to remain top of the government agenda. For example, over the last two decades there has been a dramatic surge in (1) the number of laws and (2) changes to legislation to address child abuse across countries including the development of: the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (adopted in 2007), the Council of Europe Convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (2007), the European Union ‘Guidelines for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of the Child (2007), the Revised Council Framework decision on combating the sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography (2009) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Generally speaking online child pornography exists in three forms – ‘barely legal’ pornography which features adults portrayed as teenagers; ‘falsified’ child pornography, which consists of sexualized images of children which are either computer-generated or those which are created from the imposing of a child’s image onto a second image; and authentic child pornography which features children and underage teenagers in sexualized contexts or situations. All three types of child pornography raise significant concerns regarding their dissemination within the public sphere, and regarding the well-being of children. While ‘barely legal’ pornography is often considered legal, given that the subject can be verified as an adult, ‘falsified’, and authentic child pornography, are illegal in the majority of Western societies due to the representation of victimization of children.

Child pornography is not restricted to one particular age group of children, images of infants, toddlers, school-age children and teens can all be found in abundance on the Internet, the content varying from everyday images of bathing to images of children being sexually assaulted by adults and involved in bestiality (Beech, et al, 2008). Mitchell, Wolak and Finkelhor’s (2005) study of online sex offenders found that the majority of child pornographic images collected by these individuals concerned children aged between 6 and 12 years (82%), although images of younger children were also present. Images tended to show explicit images of genitalia or specific acts (92%), penetration of the child (80%), and other sexual contact with adults (71%), in a significant minority of cases (21%) images of bondage, rape, torture or other violence were recorded. Frei, Erenay, Dittmann and Graf’s (2005) study of child pornography involving 33 men convicted of child pornography offences revealed that 45% of images documented a serious assault and 27% of images depicted sadism or bestiality.

Kierkgaard (2008) identifies three main methods which facilitate the distribution of sexualized child content online-commercial websites, personal websites, and peer-to-peer file sharing. Jenkins (2001) counters claims by law enforcement and government agencies that paedophiles trade images in chat rooms and by email stating that such mechanisms are counterproductive to the nature of child pornography networks, but instead identifies four main mechanisms-“newsgroups (Usenet); corporate-linked “communities”; web-based bulletin boards; and closed groups”(p.53). Newsgroups are essentially commercial websites which host large volumes of material along central themes. Jenkins (2001) identified two main types of content on newsgroups-images and story boards hosting written descriptions of sexual fantasies and actual actions on children. Newsgroups are by nature difficult to access, not normally identified in a standard search on a search engine, and in most cases require some form of payment or subscription in order to access the content. Given the paper trail left by a credit card payment to such an organization it is difficult to imagine how law enforcement agencies are not better able to access complete lists of paying paedophiles, however as Jenkins (2001) describes, people with an interest in this material become very skilled at side-stepping processes which lead to their identification, with the creation of false identities and email addresses, and the development of hacking skills to allow them to access material for free.

Bulletin boards appear to have been central to the organization of child pornography. These boards do not provide pornographic images, but instead provide Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) with descriptions of hosted content, followed by passwords, so that other members of the board can access material on an external site. As Jenkins (2001) describes them “Though the boards forbid the posting of visual materials, they nonetheless act as guideposts to actual images, operating on a global scale and freely crossing international boundaries and jurisdictions” (p.67). In addition these boards provide an open forum for those with an interest in child pornography to discuss their particular sexual interests, to network with likeminded individuals, to access support for sexual interests in children, and to request links which display images which are of specific interest to them.

Closed groups or paedo rings are described by Jenkins (2001) as the networks of the elite, and among these circles peer-to-peer file sharing is most likely. While normally such activity is shunned by child pornographers, the members of closed groups tend to be experienced members of bulletin boards, with established histories of participating and posting material, thus making them less likely to be masquerading law enforcement personnel, and also tend to have extreme hard core pornographic tastes, often involved directly in the molestation, abuse and rape of children and subsequent production of child pornography. Several examples of these paedo rings have been identified in recent years, among the most infamous being the Wonderland Club, an international ring spanning thirteen countries. The Wonderland Club was the target of an international policing operation which uncovered 200 individuals trading in child pornography, with 750,000 images and 1,800 video-taped scenes of no less that 1,200 children ranging in age from infancy to teens. The Wonderland Club was tightly administered and guarded by its members, with potential new members strictly vetted, and asked to provide references and a personal, available catalogue of at least 10,000 images of interest (Panorama, 1998-2001).

In contrast to child pornography distribution which is facilitated in covert networks, solicitation and predation requires direct access to children, occurring in chat rooms and social network sites, as well as instant or private messaging and emails. However child pornography can be employed to seduce or blackmail a child in order to make contact with them (Frei et al., 2005). Mitchell, Wolak and Finkelhor (2005) report in their study of online sex offenders that 52% of offenders who solicited a child and 41% of offenders who solicited an undercover police or law enforcement agent possessed child pornography.

Solicitation and Perpetration of Sex Offences Online

Much of the growing concern around child and teenage Internet use is the potential for exploitation either through unwanted or inappropriate sexual contact made by predatory adults. In theory the internet provides access to an infinitely large number of potential victims that can be groomed for sexual contact offline (See Buschman & Bogaerts, 2009; Wolak et al., 2004; Wolak et al., 2003). Mechanisms such as chat rooms offer a way to meet potential victims. The assurance of anonymity allows such individuals to pose as children and communicate with their victims in turn establishing trust (Quayle & Taylor, 2001).

According to the research literature adolescents are more likely than younger children to be solicited online (Finkelhor, Mitchell & Wolak, 2002), particularly as they are more likely to instigate or participate in an online discussion threads about sex or relationships (Magid, 1998). Ybarra and Mitchell (2008) report that 15% of 10-15 year olds surveyed had received an unwanted sexual solicitation whilst online. Mitchell, Finkelhor and Wolak (2007) report that in a national sample of American youth 1 in 25 had received an online request to provide a sexual picture of themselves in the year prior to the survey, and such requests were more likely to be made during online communications with adults. Between 1st July 2000 and 30th June 2001 the US law enforcement agencies reported almost 1,000 arrests for Internet sex offences against minors (Wolak, Mitchell & Finkelhor, 2003). It is worth noting that between 2000 and 2005 in the US there was an overall decrease in youth solicitation (Mitchell, Wolak and Finkelhor, 2007b), and more recent findings from The Growing Up with Media survey revealed that most adolescents, contrary to popular belief, are not involved in harassment or unwanted sexual solicitation as either victim or perpetrator (Ybarra, Espelage & Mitchell, 2007). Yet there is evidence from both the UK and the US that crimes against children are increasing, and that adult sex offenders are using the Internet as a viable means to gain access to their potential victims. Ybarra and Mitchell (2008) found that among 10 to 15 year old American youths who had received an online solicitation, instant messaging was the most common method of solicitation (43%) followed by chat rooms (32%), social networking sites (27%) and emails (22%), only a small minority of youth reported being the target of a sexual solicitation in a blog (6%). There is evidence that adolescent bloggers are at increased risk of harassment online regardless as to whether or not they interacted with others online which suggests that simply being online and blogging renders individuals susceptible to online harassment (e.g. Mitchell, Wolak & Finkelhor, 2008).However there are some studies which indicate that social networking sites are not associated with unwanted sexual solicitation or harassment, suggesting that interventions should focus on the youth as opposed to specific internet sites such as Facebook (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008). For example, in a sample of 1,588 youth, Ybarra and Mitchell (2008) found that 15% reported unwanted sexual solicitation and 33% reported online harassment but only 4% of unwanted sexual solicitation and 9% of online harassment reported an incident on a specific social networking site.

Perhaps more worryingly however, are the intentions of young people when they go online and how certain actions make them more vulnerable to solicitation by potential predators. Subrahmanyam et al. (2000) report that adolescents often visit chat rooms with the intention of engaging with strangers. This is particularly concerning when one considers that chat room users are four times more likely than non-users to be exposed to an unwanted online sexual advance (Mitchell, Finkelhor & Wolak, 2001). Furthermore, online interactions are particularly problematic as they generally involve revelations of highly personal information to unknown individuals. Particularly striking is the apparent naivety of young children in disclosing information regarding their personal identity. Livingstone (2003) reported evidence from the NOP survey which found that 20% of children would give out their home address and 14% would give out their email address. Wolak, Mitchell and Finkelhor (2003b) report 14% of 10 to 17 year old Americans surveyed had formed a close romantic relationship with someone they met online. While Internet relationships may be beneficial to teens in allowing them to explore their sexuality and emotional commitment while retaining their anonymity and detachment (Clark, 1998) they can present an opportunity for potential predators to engage with young people and forge relationships with them.

Mitchell, Finkelhor and Wolak (2007b) suggest that adolescents were 1.7 times more likely to report more aggressive solicitations particularly if they were female, talking to people they met online, including talking about sex, using chat rooms to name a few. Unwanted sexual solicitation has been linked with both depression and offline victimisation and higher rates of substance use (Mitchell, Finkelhor, and Wolak, 2007; Mitchell, Finkelhor & Wolak, 2001; Mitchell, Ybarra & Finkelhor, 2007). For those who are molested as a result of their solicitation the consequences again are profound for their well-being, with higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicide ideation and substance use often reported (Dombrowski, Ahia & McQuiillan, 2003; Oddone, Genuis & Violato, 2001). Victims of online solicitation are also more than two times likely to report depression and high levels of substance use (Mitchell, Ybarra & Finkelhor, 2007). Inevitably all youth are susceptible to solicitation online however more research is needed to understand what factors place individuals at greater risk and to help identify effective interventions (Guan & Subrahmanyam, 2009).

The Perpetrators

“Sexual predators are a heterogeneous group, and as a result it is difficult to define a typology of the sexual predator” (Dombrowski, LeMasney, Ahia & Dickson, 2004, p. 66). This becomes somewhat more difficult when one considers the different categories of perpetrators, and the different victims they target. We have concentrated on two main types – the child pornographer, and the online predator who solicits young people. Although it is worth bearing in mind that these categories are by no means mutually exclusive, on a superficial level there are some distinguishing characteristics in terms of their characteristics, their victims, and the mechanisms by which they use the internet to victimise children.

Describing a ‘typical’ child pornographer is not an easy task, in part because the existing research base examining child sex offenders does not tend to distinguish between pornographers and molesters and also because as Jenkins (2001) points out accessible information “tells us about those inept and seemingly atypical offenders who fail to take the obvious precautions and who get caught” (p.13). According to some researchers the profile of online predators and their victims is inaccurate and internet crimes involving children and young people are more consistent with a model of rape than child molestation (Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell & Ybarra, 2008). Media reports often depict apprehended sex offenders, both pornographers and molesters, as ‘loners’, ‘misfits’ and intellectually slow (Panorama, 1998-2001). Indeed much of the existing research literature on sex offenders (pornographers and molesters) does suggest that in addition to being predominantly male, sex offenders tend to have a lower than average IQ (Kalichman, 1991), be in lower socio-economic status groups (Abel et al., 2001), and be victims themselves. However, online child pornographers may not be well represented by such a typology. Jenkins (2001) asserts that the world of online child pornography is one of substantial technological sophistication of which the purveyors of images and network members must be cognizant in order to survive and evade detection. Frei et al.’s (2005) study of 33 individuals convicted of online child pornography offences revealed a substantially different typology among this group. While all were adult males, ranging between 25 and 69 years of age, almost all were employed, a third of whom were in respectable, professional occupations. Forty percent had children themselves and almost three quarters (70%) had no previous offending histories. Furthermore while one third of these men had never been in an intimate romantic relationship in their lifetime two thirds did report having been in an intimate relationships including marriage.

Evidence from qualitative work suggests that the standards of the pedophile culture justify their behaviour and attitudes to sexual relationships with children and young people both off- and online (Holt, Blevins & Burkert, 2010). One potential source of relationship for the child pornographer is other pornographers, or the ‘loli/boy lover’ community. Loli-lover is a particular term of reference to those with an interest in young girls, while ‘boy-lover’ describes those with an interest in young boys. Many have identified a tendency among child molesters and child sex-offenders to develop relationships with similarly inclined individuals who can support their beliefs and actions (Durkin & Bryant, 1999; Ward & Hudson, 2000). Malesky and Ennis (2004) covertly studied interactions between members of a ‘boy love’ network over a seven day period and reported that over one fifth of all comments contained justification for their attitudes, beliefs and actions towards children. In discussing the group trading in the Wonderland Club Adams describes

the problem was not just the trading of images, but also the way that paedophiles had an easy way to contact each other and to reinforce their beliefs that sex with children was not wrong, to promote the ghastly idea that somehow these children were ‘in relationships’ with adults. (Adams, 2002, p.140).

Of particular note is the ‘collector’ trait of many paedophilies, with images much sought after in the loli-lover and boy-lover communities and members striving to complete particular collections, bargaining and exchanging with fellow network members to complete the series. Taylor, Holland and Quayle (2001) suggest that collections can be characterized in one of two ways-a thematic series of images depicting a particular theme, or act, and a narrative series dedicated to a particular child or group of children. Indeed some of the most infamous collections have been narrative in nature such as the KG and KX collections-KG depicts sexualized nude images of toddlers at a kindergarten/pre-school, and KX includes more explicit images of these toddlers being sexually abused by adults (Taylor, Holland and Quayle, 2001). Similarly, the infamous ‘He-lo’ (Helena -lolita) series portrays images of seven year old Helena, nude and engaged in sexual intercourse with a young boy of similar age. As well as images of sex involving both children and an adult man. The He-lo series is unfortunately thought to be only a small section of a larger collection which documents Helena’s abuse from a toddler to around the age of 12 (Jenkins, 2001).

Elliott, Browne and Kilcoyne (1995) report that sex offenders range in age from the young adult to the elderly, but with a particularly high proportion in the thirty and early forty age bands. Traditionally the majority of sex offences against children are perpetrated by someone known to them or their family (Fieldman & Crespi, 2002), with comparatively fewer acts by strangers (Snyder, 2000). However the global connectivity of the Internet appears to facilitate greater ‘stranger danger’ with 97% of youth in Mitchell, Finkelhor and Wolak’s (2001) study reporting solicitation by a stranger. While most sexual solicitations and offences against children are perpetrated by adults, it is also important to recognize the potential of children to sexually abuse their peers, and younger children. Estimates in the United States suggest that as many as one third of child molestations are perpetrated by children (Davis & Leitenberg, 1987; Fieldman & Crespi, 2002).

The Child Victims

Notwithstanding the implications of the availability of child pornography for viewing by other children and adolescents in their online interactions, it is important to frame child pornography on the Internet, not just as a problem for those using the website, but also (excepting those cases where the images are computer generated) as a visual record of an act or multiple acts of abuse against a child or children. While many purveyors of child pornography may defend their actions in an ‘at least I’m not touching’ mantra, it is inescapable that for such material to be available a child must be harmed and abused. A report by the IWF (2009) stated that 69% of those being exploited were between the ages of 0 and 10 years. Furthermore, for 58% the severity of the abuse displayed reached level 4 (penetrative sexual activity involving a child/children or both children and adults) or 5 (sadism or penetration of or by an animal) according to the Sentencing Guidelines Council (IWF, 2009).

Sexual abuse has considerable ramifications for the health and well-being of victims, both in the short- and long- term (Dombrowski, Ahia & McQuiillan, 2003; Oddone, Genuis & Violato, 2001). As Cicetti and Toth (1995) have pointed out sexual victimization of a child can result in significant developmental problems which can have lasting implications. Victims of sexual abuse are also more likely to report mental health disorders and substance use disorders (Dombrowski, Ahia & McQuiillan, 2003; Oddone, Genuis & Violato, 2001). However, for those who have their abuse documented and made public to others there may be even further consequences, Lanning (1984) reports that the permanency of pornographic images may hold considerable repercussions for the child victim. Adams (2002) cites a television interview between a reporter and police personnel following the discovery and arrest of paedophiles involved in the ‘Wonderland’ series in which the effect of this permanence is discussed, the reporter states “The policemen who patrol the Internet still see the faces of hundreds of Wonderland children. They are out there forever” and police representatives comment “their abuse is going to continue for the rest of their life. That documentation of their abuse is going to be part of their life forever” (Panorama, Transcript of ‘The Wonderland Club’ p. 12, cited by Adams, 2002, p. 46). The literature consistently reports that victimized youth are significantly more likely to experience further victimization in their lives, and this is also true in online interactions. Among online solicited youth there is a higher prevalence of prior offline sexual and physical abuse (Mitchell, Finkelhor and Wolak, 2007b). As is so often the case those children most at risk of such victimization are less likely to have mechanisms within their lives which can identify and address the victimization (Glasser, et al, 2001).

As noted by Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell and Ybarra (2008) Internet initiated sex crimes against children generally concerns a more restricted age range of children than in offline child molestation. Victims of online solicitation are generally in or approaching their teens (Wolak, Finkelhor & Mitchell, 2004). Aside from the nature of adolescent activities online which may act to facilitate contact with potentially abusive adults there are a number of characteristics which appear to increase a particular teenager’s vulnerability to sexual solicitation. Wolak et al. (2008) have identified females, particularly those who are sexually active early; homosexual or sexually unsure males; and victimized young people. Female youth tend to receive online sexual solicitations more than males (Mitchell, Wolak & Finkelhor, 2007). Wolak, Mitchell and Finkelhor (2004) reported that 75% of victims in their study of 129 Internet initiated sex crimes were female teens between 13 and 15 years of age. Contrastingly boys appear to be less likely to be sought out for sexual solicitation 25% of victims in the Wolak, Mitchell and Finkelhor (2004) study and Wolak et al. (2008) suggest that the activity of these young boys online, suggests that they were either homosexual or sexually confused.

Younger children are currently much less likely to be using Internet technology, and subsequently at less at risk for online solicitation, but rather face risk of molestation from offline sources. The fact that most recipients of online sexual solicitations are adolescent has some important implications for our understanding of the processes of online sexual solicitation and ‘relationships’ with adults. It is very important to appreciate that young people are not necessarily passive recipients of sexual overtures online, but rather much of their online behaviour can facilitate contact with potential sex offenders. According to work by Subrahmanyam and Greenfield (2008) the potential for contact with strangers is highly dependent on the type of online communication and the context of use, with chat room interactions, and social networking sites most likely to involve strangers while instant messaging more commonly used to connect with known offline contacts. However it is important to bear in mind that children’s technological skills are becoming more advanced at earlier ages, and that this may substantially impact on the profile of young victims of solicitation. It remains to be seen if younger children’s growing presence on and familiarity with the internet facilitates greater solicitation of this age group by predators.

Protecting Children Online

Sexually abusive and exploitative practices towards children (e.g. child prostitution, child sex tourism and child pornography), are not new and remain prevalent on a worldwide scale. For example, approximately one million children, of whom the majority is girls, are victims of sex trafficking every year (UNICEF, 2008). Protecting children as they engage online is an important part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which requires governments to safeguard children from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation including child pornography and trafficking (UNICEF, 2008). Yet, the criminalization of such material and the prosecution of those involved are problematic and difficult to execute. The main difficulty is that “the production of child abuse material may take place in one country, the distribution may be hosted in a second and the material may be downloaded from all other the world” (European Commission, 2008, p.4). Furthermore, the surge in legislation has done little to facilitate apprehension and prosecution of criminals. For example, from all 187 countries of Interpol, 93 countries have no legislation targeting child pornography whilst a further 36 do not criminalise possession irrespective of their intention to distribute such material (ICMEC, 2008). Furthermore many legal issues centre on possession, distribution and production of child pornography (Taylor et al, 2001). Other difficulties hampering the criminalization of child pornography and sexual solicitation of children on an international scale include the lack of a global consensus on when childhood ends and adulthood begins. The result is that there exist different ages of consent, and different age thresholds for the prosecution of child pornography and solicitation offences both within and between countries. Another concern relates to the way in which documents operationalise sexual abuse and exploitation. Usually, such documents state that maltreatment involves (1) engagement of the child in real or simulated sexual activities, (2) representation of sexual parts of the child for sexual purposes (e.g. UN optional protocol and sentencing guidelines). This definition suggests that such material is harmful, criminal and deserving of prosecution. However, it ignores large amounts of other potentially harmful material to which children may be exposed to on the Internet and other audio/visual mediums which should also be criminalized (Quayle, Loof & Palmer, 2008).

In their desire to unite countries in combating the problem, the UN has organized a number of world Conferences against the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, to mobilize countries into taking action to safeguarding the rights and needs of the child against such acts of abuse. A number of events have been organized worldwide to target child abuse and exploitation. For example, in June 2009, the ‘Nobody’s Children Foundation’ initiated and coordinate a joint venture between ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) and a number of organizations responsible for assisting abused children and children at risk in Poland (CANEE, 2009a). In Poland a number of organizations have joined forces to establish a Polish network against the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CANEE, 2009b). Finally the Safer Internet Centers in Poland and Germany are worked together to organize the 3rdInternational Conference entitled ‘Keeping Children and Young People Safe Online’ in Warsaw in September 2008 (CANEE, 2008a).

Work from the second World Congress on sexual exploitation of children recommended that more hotlines are established to curb potential harm and victimization online. Since then the International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE) has grown from 15 members in 2001 across 12 countries to 28 by 2008 (Quayle et al., 2008). Furthermore, INHOPE appears to be making progress on tackling the issue of the sexual exploitation of children having made 6,400 reports to the police in the October to December of 2006, but reported receiving little feedback from the law enforcement agencies and some stated that reports were not forwarded as they lay outside their control (Quayle et al., 2008). There have also been changes in practice and in the UK, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a founding member of INHOPE, has been established to enable the public and IT professionals to report potentially criminal and reprehensible material encountered on the Internet. To date, IWF have successfully reduced images of child sexual abuse (of what is known) that were hosted in the UK from 18% in 1997 to less than 1% since 2003 (IWF, 2009). However, there is still much work to be done. For instance, 81% of domains depicting images of child sex abuse are live for less than 100 days. Frequent hopping across servers and countries to avoid detection and potential prosecution for those involved (much like a game of cat and mouse) continues to pose great challenges in managing the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people online. Furthermore, this process is further hampered by different jurisdictions and laws and thus requires international cooperation if it is to be a success since the IWF have no remit in countries outside of the UK and thus can only share its relevant intelligence with the hotline in the hosting country (IWF, 2009).

Fuelled in part by a moral obligation and in part public panic, organizations have started to produce material to educate young children about how to be safe online. In 1999 the European Commission developed the ‘Safer Internet Programme’ which is designed to protect children online by raising awareness through various initiatives and combating the display of illegal material. The UK has endorsed the EU Safer Internet Programme and on February 10th 2009, the Nobody’s Children Foundation and NASK organized the Safer Internet Day in Poland (i.e. after implementing the EU’s project (CANEE, 2009c). The Council of Europe has also developed an online game to teach children (7-10 years of age) in a fun and friendly way how to be safe online. Entitled ‘Wild Web Woods’ it is currently available in 20 languages such as Russian, Hungarian and Lithuanian (CANEE, 2008b). Education packages have been developed for different age groups for use in schools across Europe, USA, Australia and New Zealand. However, while much work and effort has gone into promoting safety online, many of these tools have yet to be evaluated (Quayle et al., 2008) and yet policy should be based on evidence. Furthermore, the extent to which they actually impact on and influence behavior, remains to be seen as they may just impact on attitudes and knowledge (Quayle et al., 2008). There is a need for future research to produce reliable and systematic evaluations of educational and awareness programmes which chart their effectiveness at behavior change in the youth (Quayle et al., 2003).

On a practical level Dombrowski et al. (2004) suggest a number of techniques which can be employed to assist in securing children’s safety online. First, firewall and anti-virus software should be installed to prevent infiltration by potential predators seeking information which they can exploit in their interactions with children. There is evidence that preventive software was associated with significantly reduced risk of unwanted exposure for 10-12 year olds and 13-15 year olds, although not for 16-17 year olds (Ybarra, Finkelhor, Mtichell & Wolak, 2009) when stratified by age. Caregivers of younger children who want to reduce the incidence of unwanted exposure should consider preventative software. Second, they suggest a need for adults to better understand children’s screen names, and the messages that these may send to adults with a sexual interest in children, a responsibility which should be carried by all in roles of responsibility towards children. They also emphasize the need for understanding between the child and care-giver as to acceptable online behaviour, and the creation of contracts which stipulate the responsibility of each in relation to online behaviour and relationships. The placing of the computer in a public place can be particularly important in assisting parents in monitoring children’s online risk exposure, although as previously mentioned, children appear to be adept at evading such forms of monitoring and regulation. Finally Dombrowski et al. (2004) stress the need for action on discovering inappropriate actions by an adult towards a child, and advise for parents, care-givers and teachers to contact available hot-lines to alert agencies to child pornography and episodes of solicitation, and to contact the Internet server who have a responsibility to protect their child users. To facilitate the reporting of abuse, the CEOP introduced an ‘abuse button’ in the UK and the Norwegian police have implemented a similar devise. Microsoft carries the button on Windows Live Messenger which allows individuals to report any suspicious and malicious behavior encountered when online (Quayle et al., 2008). Belguim and the Netherlands have both established websites on which concerned individuals can lodge concerns or complaints about child pornography. Networking sites are also becoming more responsible using moderators in chat rooms to block improper conduct (Quayle et al., 2008). There is evidence that monitored chats environments contain less explicit sexuality and fewer obscenities (Subrahmanyam, Smahel & Greenfield, 2006). Perhaps most importantly however, is that age and developmentally appropriate strategies should be developed which target children and young people directly and particularly those in high risk groups (Wolak et al., 2008).


This chapter sought to address several questions regarding young people’s exposure to and experiences of sexual content and solicitation online including the nature of sexual material to which they are exposed to online; the processes by which young people access sexual material online; the nature by which potential predators may target young people and how young people in turn come to interact with sexual predators online. There is much debate as to the nature and extent of regulation (e.g. government, commercial, private) needed to protect children from exposure to sexually explicit material and from potential exploitation by deviant individuals. While the need to protect children from harm yet simultaneously allow their freedom of expression is juggled, there remains nonetheless a moral obligation that children are protected from predatory individuals and consequently legislation has arisen to manage this. However, to fully uphold children’s rights and ensure the continued safety of children and young people as they participate online will require the commitment of everyone from the family to schools and other institutions. The simple reason being that for “as long as there is a sexual interest in a behavior or type of person, that will lead to commodification and commercialization, in the form of prostitution and pornography” Jenkins (2001, p.30).

As already noted despite the widespread acceptance and use of the internet within society, it is also shrouded in mystery and fear, particularly in relation to sex. Undoubtedly, the area is hampered by outdated, unsystematic research that relies largely on small samples and cross-sectional design (Escobar-Chaves et al., 2005). Use of robust measures and longitudinal studies are warranted if understanding as to the effectiveness of interventions and if the findings from studies are to be used as evidence for policy (Escobar-Chaves et al., 2005)