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8 November 2016

It’s time to tackle child abuse images online differently – we can’t arrest our way out of this

A report by the NSPCC suggests the number of individuals looking at abusive images of children in the UK could exceed half a million.

By Peter Wanless

The production and consumption of child abuse images online is creating a social emergency.

Digital technology is making it ever easier for this abuse to proliferate, damaging the many children involved in this vile trade. Our review of the evidence, published today, suggests that in the UK more than 500,000 individuals could be using child abuse images.

It is deeply shocking, however, that in spite of much willingness and tremendous efforts by many agencies such as the Internet Watch Foundation and the National Crime Agency, that there is still an unknown quantity of child abuse images available on the web, for depraved individuals to use for their own gratification.

Behind each and every child sexual abuse image, abuse has occurred in the real world. These children are victims every time their image is viewed, and, worse still, the knowledge that the image or film may never be removed causes on-going trauma that they are forced to live with. To further heighten the seriousness of this abuse, we know there have been cases where the viewing of child abuse images escalates into abuse in real life.

The challenge we are faced with is sizeable. There are many praiseworthy endeavours, and much valuable work already happening to try to keep our children safer online. It is almost universally agreed that this material is illegal and wrong. But we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. Despite the most valiant efforts of law enforcement, the only real way that we will see a change for the future is by a change in approach, which places prevention at the root of the solution. The only way for us to truly protect children from this terrible harm is to prevent the abuse from happening in the first place.

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Better understanding of the scale, nature and urgency of the challenge is vital. Ensuring that everyone – industry, government, law enforcement and charities like the NSPCC – plays their part is crucial. And a greater public understanding of the problem and its effects on children is also needed.

But we also think in the long term we need a different approach; one that places emphasis on a minimum set of standards that industry must comply with to keep children safe online. We question whether it is sufficient for an issue as serious as this to be dealt with through a voluntary system of self-regulation. And we believe there needs to be more transparency, so we can truly understand the scale and impact of the issue with which we are dealing and the progress that is being made.

We must be ambitious in our belief that the UK can, and should, be the hardest country in the world from which to access and view child sexual abuse images. And we must all play a role to ensure that children receive the right levels of protection from this devastating abuse online.

The internet can be a magical place for children. It should play a part in a child’s learning, in development and discovery. It should be a place of positive growth, and a place where children can safely play, imagine and explore. But the reality is that in its darkest corners terrible crimes are being committed against children that can result in lasting damage for those who become victims of online sexual abuse. Unless we act to stamp out the demand and supply of these images, we risk, as a society, permitting and even enabling this horrific abuse to take root.

Now is the time for us to challenge ourselves to end the scourge of child sexual abuse images in the UK, and to work together so that we all play our part protecting our children.

Peter Wanless is chief executive of the NSPCC

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