Cause & effect

Does possession of child pornography lead to child abuse? And
could young people become child sex abusers if they view it
themselves, asks Sarah Wellard.

One of the nastiest sides to the revolution in information
technology is the massive increase in the availability of hard-core
pornography, including child pornography. There are estimated to be
one million pornographic images of children on the internet, many
of them featuring children from third world countries being abused
by affluent sex tourists from the west.

Aside from the appalling suffering of the children featured,
child protection campaigners and experts on sex offending believe
that the increased use in child pornography is likely to be
associated with a general rise in the prevalence of child sexual
abuse. Research from the US points to a very strong link between
people using child pornography and active involvement with child

One study carried out by the US Postal Inspections Service found
that in 36 per cent of cases of possession of pornographic material
featuring children, the individuals were also involved in actual
abuse. Separate figures from the US Customs service reported 80 per
cent of people in possession were also abusing.

So is the internet creating a new kind of sex offender, or is it
just another medium that paedophiles are using? Ray Wyre, an expert
on sex offenders, believes that the figures from the US offer
little guidance as to how many of those using child porn accessed
through the net are likely to become active abusers. He says:
“There’s a big debate about how many people who watch it would do
it. We have no knowledge of the numbers who use it and go on to
abuse children. All we know is that there are three groups.” The
first is people who see it out of curiosity, are turned off by it
and never do it again. Then there are those who use it for fantasy
and masturbation and seek more. The third group, says Wyre,
consists of people who see it and want to act out their

Wyre says the big change in his work is that he is now being
asked to assess professionals and carers where pornography has been
an issue. Clients include doctors, teachers and foster carers. He
says: “People sometimes give the impression that they have accessed
material out of curiosity or stupidity. But even to access it is to
support and maintain an abuse industry. There’s no consistency
around the country in responding to it. We haven’t even decided
whether children should automatically be examined.” In one case,
Wyre is assessing a trainee priest who is married with children.
His wife spotted pornographic pictures on his computer and reported
him to the police, and 3,400 images were found. Among them were
four pornographic images of children.

Possession of child pornography is a criminal offence. The only
statutory defence for people caught downloading it is if they were
using it for training purposes.

Rob Hutchinson, spokesperson on children and families for the
Association of Directors of Social Services, is clear that any
social worker caught in possession of obscene material would face
disciplinary action, and probably dismissal: “Every social services
director would take the same view. Anyone using this kind of
material for gratification shouldn’t be in the job.”

A major concern for child protection professionals is the
potential for child abusers to use the internet to access children.
As any parent of a young teenager knows, spending time on the net
chatting and making friends is fast becoming a cool thing to do. So
far in the UK there have been just a couple of high-profile cases
of young girls being groomed by paedophiles posing as teenage boys
in internet chat rooms, and then persuading them to meet. Last
year, Patrick Green, a clerk from Buckinghamshire, was jailed for
five years for having sex with a 13-year-old girl he contacted via
a chat room. But if the experience of the US is reflected here, the
problem is likely to grow rapidly.

Caroline Abrahams, director of public policy at children’s
charity NCH, says: “Quite a lot of young people using chat rooms
have had disturbing experiences. One guy was sending a teenage girl
pictures of himself masturbating. Is that a criminal offence? We’ve
been taken by surprise. It’s happening so fast that our systems and
training haven’t caught up.”

Another disturbing aspect of the increased availability of
pornography over the net is the potential harm to young people who
access it. A few years ago, the average testosterone-charged
14-year-old may have had his first initiations into adult sexuality
by passing around a porn magazine with his friends. But the
internet has completely changed that. With a modicum of
technological know-how, young people are now able to view all kinds
of hard core pornography.

One of the known consequences of using pornography is that it
desensitises people. Paedophiles often know this instinctively,
which is why they use it for grooming potential victims, as part of
their ploy to persuade them that their abusive activities are
normal. So one likely impact of the increased availability of
pornography is that there will be an increase in sexual abuse,
including by young people themselves. And this is already a serious
problem in the UK. A major study into the prevalence of child
abuse1 found that one in 10 young adults, mostly female,
had been forced or threatened into sex against their will by
someone known to them while they were under the age of 16.

Abrahams is worried about the impact of this new dynamic on how
young people think and behave. She says: “We know pornography is
one of the things young people want to look for. We don’t know what
the consequences will be, but there is a young abuser issue

Child protection and law enforcement agencies are just beginning
to get to grips with the implications of the new technology. One
initiative, led by NCH and the NSPCC, together with the ADSS,
police and probation, is to establish a training programme for all
staff working with children. John Carr, internet adviser to NCH
explains. “The first element of the training is about awareness
raising. Social workers and the police need to understand the way
in which the internet is influencing the pattern of offending. It
is very hard for professionals to provide a proper service if they
don’t understand the technology clients are using.”

Hutchinson agrees that it is vital that social workers improve
their understanding of how technological advances place children at
risk. He says: “We don’t know enough about the way in which the
internet is being accessed by abusers. It is a new area. We all
need to learn more and to understand the clues about what is

Part of the fall-out of the “Wonderland” case (In Focus, 22
February), involving a ring of 180 paedophiles operating across
Europe, Australia and North America, and possessing 750,000
pornographic images of children, is that people are demanding
better regulation of the internet. Blair and Bush even talked about
it at their recent summit in February.

Five years ago internet service providers (ISPs) were threatened
with prosecution for hosting illegal material including child
pornography. In response the providers set up the Internet Watch
Foundation (IWF) and established a hot line for people to report
illegal material. Roger Darlington, chairperson of IWF explains:
“As a general rule, ISPs take the view that the volume of web
pages, news groups and chat rooms is such that they can’t know
what’s on them and be responsible for it. But if they are advised
by someone like IWF that they are hosting something that is illegal
they have a responsibility to remove it or they become legally

Since 1996, ISPs have removed 20,000 pornographic images of
children from the internet. But with an estimated 200 more being
posted every day, many of them through news groups (online forums
for people to discuss shared interests), it is clear that the
providers are only touching the tip of the iceberg. At the moment
the ISPs are considering whether they should stop hosting groups
that have been found to have carried child pornography. Darlington
says: “The majority of the content is legal, however offensive.
It’s not an easy decision for providers to decide which groups not
to host.”

But Carr believes that providers could do a great deal more to
make the internet safer for users, especially children. One way
would be to set up moderated chat rooms, effectively meaning
someone would be keeping watch on what was happening. Another
proposal is “walled gardens” screening out unsuitable material. He
questions the ease with which anyone can fake their identity when
using the net, making it harder for people accessing or posting
illegal material to be traced. After all, when you open a bank
account these days, anti-money laundering legislation requires you
to jump through various hoops to prove your ID. Couldn’t something
similar be done for the internet?

Carr says: “In the US the problem is on an upward curve. There
may be as many as 2,000 convictions a year for online offences
against children. The British public just wouldn’t put up with that
level of offending.”

1 Cawson et al, Child Maltreatment in the
United Kingdom
, NSPCC, 2000

If you agree or disagree with any of the points Ray Wyre has
made please write to him at
before 22 March. His responses to your questions will be posted on
the site on 26 March

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