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3.3 Child Abuse and Information Communication Technology

For further reading, go to the Child Exploitation and On-Line Protection Centre (CEOP)


This chapter was updated in July 2015 with the following paragraph:

As part of the Serious Crime Bill (2015) an offence of sexual communication with a child was introduced. This applies to an adult who communicates with a child and the communication is sexual or if it is intended to elicit from the child a communication which is sexual and the adult reasonably believes the child to be under 16 years of age. The Act also amended the Sex Offences Act 2003 so it is now an offence for an adult to arrange to meet with someone under 16 having communicated with them on just one occasion (previously it was on at least two occasions).


  1. The Internet
  2. The Impact on the Child
  3. Child Abuse and the Adult
  4. Referral and Strategy Discussion
  5. Outcome of the Child Protection Assessment
  6. Further Information

1. The Internet

As technology develops, the Internet and its range of content services can be accessed through various devices including mobile phones, text messaging and mobile camera phones as well as computers and game consoles. As a consequence the Internet has become a significant tool in the distribution of indecent/pseudo photographs and video clips of children and young people.

Internet chat rooms, discussion forums and bulletin boards are used as a means of contacting children with a view to grooming them for inappropriate or abusive relationships, which may include requests to make and transmit pornographic images of themselves or to perform sexual acts live in front of a web cam.

Contacts made initially in a chat room are likely to be carried on via email, instant messaging services, mobile phone and text messaging. There is also a growing cause for concern about the exposure of children to inappropriate material via interactive communication technology e.g. adult pornography and extreme forms of obscene material.

The grooming of children online is typically a quicker process than grooming by other means and is totally anonymous. The abuser develops a ‘special’ relationship with the child online (often adopting a false identity), which remains a secret to enable an offline meeting to occur in order for the abuser to sexually harm the child. The abuser grooms online by finding out as much as they can about their potential victim, establishes the risk and likelihood of the child telling, finds out about the child’s family and social networks and, if safe enough, will isolate their victim, usually through bribes or threats, and gain control.

Abusers may use repeated exposure to sexual images of children to diminish the child's inhibitions and give the impression that sex between adults and children is normal, acceptable and enjoyable. This also communicates the abuser’s sexual fantasies to the child.

Because children’s behaviour on the net can be far less inhibited then normal they can be encouraged to talk about things and people they wouldn’t normally talk about and use language that they wouldn’t normally use. This puts them in fear of those close to them finding out what they have said and binds them into the secrecy and control of the perpetrator.

Children who have been ‘duped’ into believing that their online contact is a ‘friend’ may also fear their own peer group judging them to have been foolish. The majority say they would have told no one about their abusive experiences.

The impact of sexual abuse of a child who has been groomed by electronic means may be similar to that suffered by other sexually abused children but if images of the abuse have been distributed electronically the impact in terms of harm and vulnerability will be increased.

Professionals in all agencies working with children, adults and families should be alert to the possibility that:

  • A child may already have been / is being abused, and the images distributed on the internet or by mobile phone;
  • An adult or older child may be grooming a child for sexual abuse including for involvement in making abusive images. This process can involve the child being shown abusive images.

The making, distribution and viewing of child sexual abuse images may be part of organised abuse (sexual exploitation, sex rings and trafficking), and abuse within and outside of the family and/or by adults and children, both known and unknown. Online abuse cannot be separated from offline abuse.

The distribution of child abuse images continues to grow (a recent UK police operation seized over 750,000 images). Research shows that in the UK, over eight million children have access to the internet and a high proportion of these children (1 in 12), have met someone offline who they initially encountered in an online environment.

2. The Impact on the Child

Children have great difficulty in talking about their abuse, some denying that it is their image even when there is categorical proof. The reasons for this include that children: 

  • Can experience intense feelings of powerlessness, knowing that there is nothing they can do about others viewing pornographic pictures / films of themselves (and sometimes their coerced sexual abuse of others) indefinitely; 
  • Express concerns over how pornography will be viewed (i.e. that they enjoyed it or were complicit in its production);
  • Are aware that the sexual abuse they endured to produce the pornography can be distributed commercially or non-commercially for the arousal of others. They are also aware that it can be used to groom and abuse other children; 
  • Suffer in the knowledge that there is a permanent record of their sexual abuse and this knowledge has implications for the need for long-term support and treatment of the children to reflect the harm that indefinite circulation can cause.

Children may also be shown images of their own abuse by their abuser, and they typically hold a personal responsibility for not stopping their own abuse and that of others involved. All these aspects reflect the impact of the grooming process of the abusers, who endeavour to make the child feel that it is their fault and that they could have stopped the abuse. 

Children who have been subject to abuse may need referral via PCAMHS to a suitable therapeutic service.

3. Child Abuse and the Adult

There is evidence that people found in possession of indecent photographs/pseudo photographs or films/videos of children are likely to be involved directly in child abuse themselves. When someone is thought to have placed or accessed such material on the Internet, the Police must be informed and they should consider the likelihood that the individual is involved in the active abuse of children. 

In particular, the individual’s access to children should be established within the family, within employment contexts and in other settings such as voluntary work with children or other positions of trust.

It should be borne in mind that any indecent, obscene image involving a child has, by its very nature, involved a person, who in creating that image has been party to abusing that child.

4. Referral and Strategy Discussion

Where there is suspected or actual evidence of anyone accessing or creating indecent images of children, this must be referred to the Police and Children, Education and Families in accordance with the Referrals (including Referrals Pathway) Procedure.

Also, where there are concerns about a child being groomed, exposed to pornographic material or contacted by someone inappropriately, via the Internet or other ICT tools like a mobile phone, referrals should be made to the Police and Children, Education and Families in accordance with the Referrals (including Referrals Pathway) Procedure.

Due to the nature of this type of abuse and the possibility of the destruction of evidence, the referrer should first discuss their concerns with the Police and Children, Education and Families before raising the matter with the family. This will enable a decision to be made about informing the family and ensuring that the child’s welfare is safeguarded.

All such reports should be taken seriously. Most referrals will be followed by a Child and Family Assessment and information should be shared between the Police and Children, Education and Families in order to determine whether a Strategy Discussion/Meeting should take place. 

A Strategy Discussion/Meeting and any Child Protection Assessment and Child and Family Assessment must carefully consider:

  • Is there a child at immediate risk of Significant Harm? e.g. the child in the image or a child in the household;
  • What is the impact on the child in the image/in the household in terms of risks and their needs?
  • Are there other children visiting the household? What is the impact on them? 
  • Is the child about to meet with the person inappropriately contacting them?
  • Is the person accessing images or creating them in contact with children in their workplace?
  • Is the person inappropriately contacting the child in contact with children in their workplace?
  • Is the person accessing or creating images involved in voluntary work, youth work or any other activity involving positions of trust?
  • Is the person inappropriately contacting the child involved in voluntary work, youth work or any other activity involving a position of trust?
  • What is the timescale for a forensic investigation of any computer equipment?
  • If the person is to be investigated, how should their contact with children be managed in the meantime, in the workplace and/or at home?
  • Should other Child Protection Procedures, such as Allegations against Staff, Carers and Volunteers Procedure or the Complex (Organised or Multiple) Abuse Procedure be triggered?
  • Is the other parent or any other carer in the household able to protect the child? What support networks do they have?
  • What are the implications of the likely delay in the criminal investigations?
  • Intervention should be continually under review if further evidence comes to light.

5. Outcome of the Child Protection Assessment

Where the Child Protection Assessment has revealed that there are children in the household or in regular contact with the household about whom there are concerns of continuing risk of Significant Harm, an Initial Child Protection Conference must be convened within 15 working days of the last Strategy Discussion/Meeting.

Where the concerns are not substantiated, consideration should be given to the need for the child and family to receive support services on a single or multi-agency basis.

Where the concerns are substantiated but the child/ren are not judged to be at continuing risk of Significant Harm, consideration should be given to a Family Support Conference or a Family Group Conference and a Child in Need Plan developed to ensure the child or children’s future welfare and safety. This may be appropriate where the person who is alleged to have accessed or created indecent images agrees to move out of the household while the investigation is in progress as this kind of investigation can take time while equipment is analysed. Such a decision must be taken in line with the Child Protection Assessments Procedure.

Where there are no children identified as at continuing risk of Significant Harm in relation to the adult, the Police will continue with investigations in order to establish the identity of the child/ren in the images if at all possible. The National Police Child Abuse and Internet specialist services will be informed as appropriate.

Where there are no children identified in relation to the adult in the household or immediate home environment but the adult is in contact with children in other settings such as work or other activities, the Allegations against Staff, Carers and Volunteers Procedure should be carried through to their conclusion.

Where the person, who is alleged to have accessed or created the indecent images or groomed another child, is a child, the Children who Exhibit Harmful Behaviour (Including Sexual, Physical and Emotional) Procedure should be considered as the activities may constitute inappropriate sexual behaviour.

6. Further Information

Definition and legislation

The UK legislates against the production, distribution and possession of abusive images of children (also known as child pornography). It is an offence to take, permit to be taken, make, possess, distribute or advertise indecent images (photographs or pseudo-photographs) of children (Protection of Children Act 1978 (England and Wales) as amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

An indecent image of a child is a visual record of the sexual abuse of a child, either through sexual acts by adults, other children (or which involves bestiality), or children posed in a sexually provocative way.  

It is a serious arrestable offence to seek out images of child abuse. The making of this includes the voluntary downloading of and possession of such images and carry maximum sentences of ten and five years respectively.

The UK laws which relate to child abuse images are: 

  • Protection of Children Act 1978 (England and Wales) as amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994;
  • Civic Government Act, 1982 (Scotland);
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003: Key Changes (England and Wales);
  • Memorandum of Understanding: Section 46 Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) brings together law enforcement officers, specialists from children's charities and industry to tackle online child sexual abuse. CEOP provides a dedicated 24 hour online facility for reporting instances of online child sexual abuse. They can be contacted for advice and support.

Also please refer to the ACPO Position on Young People who Post Self-Taken Indecent Images.