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Child Abuse and Information Communication Technology

Related guidance

This chapter has been developed to address the challenges posed by those using the internet and other information technologies to satisfy their sexual interest in children. It provides a framework for those working with families where a family member has accessed abusive materials. It also gives some guidance on the risks faced by children using the internet.

The guidance is only the most basic, and intended only to give some insight into the problem. When working with an internet offender, and particularly when carrying out a risk assessment, it is important to read some of the literature on this subject. References are provided in Section 9, References.

All agencies working with children and young people should address the safe use of the Internet in their own policies and procedures to ensure that all staff members are aware of when to be concerned and the action to be taken.

As technology develops, the Internet and its range of content services can be accessed through various devices including mobile phones, computers and game consoles. As a consequence, with its rapid growth and widespread use, the Internet has become a significant tool in the distribution of sexual images, photographs and video clips, some of which are sexually abusive to 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. This may involve adults with a sexual interest in children representing themselves as young people in an attempt to make contact with children. It may also include requests to children to make and transmit sexual online images of themselves or to perform sexual acts live in front of a web cam - see Section 8, Sexual Offences Act 2003 and Grooming.

It is important that children are made aware of these dangers and the "rules" for using chat rooms and social networking sites safely. There are a number of publications and web-sites which will provide this advice and some of these are listed in Section 9, References.

Contacts made initially in a chat room or on a social networking site 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. extreme forms of obscene material.

It is difficult to estimate the numbers of people viewing abusive child images. Many of these people have no criminal record relating to sexual offending and have not manifested any sexual interest in their own children. This poses a dilemma for professionals working with families where the person's own children appear well cared for and do not report any abuse. In these circumstances, how should the risk posed be assessed?

Research into this offending behaviour has led to a classification of types of Internet offender.

  • Recreational Users who access online sexual material out of curiosity or for entertainment purposes. These are very similar to those described as the Discovery Group with no previous history of problematic sexual behaviour, who have probably discovered abusive images of children via viewing adult pornography;
  • At-risk users or Pre-disposed users. This group of users will typically have had some sexual interest in children but will not previously have been able to access abusive images. The Internet will have given them a seemingly "safe" environment, where they feel they can be anonymous in pursuing their sexual interest in children. It is estimated that these "at-risk" users can spend up to 10 hours per week online, viewing abusive images;
  • Sexually Compulsive Users who use the Internet to act out their sexual interest in children - the Internet is part of their ongoing sexual problem. This group may spend an estimated 15 to 25 hours online per week pursuing sexual material.

Grading systems for the abusive photographs are often used as an indication of the severity of abuse and in sentencing the convicted offender. Whilst this can be helpful as an indication of the offender's sexual interest, it should not be relied on wholly. The 'milder', less sexualised photographs may be used as an aid to fantasy using the 'normal' pictures as part of a fantasy scenario that ends in the most extreme abuse - see Section 6, Assessment.

Many Internet offenders will have extremely large collections of abusive material, sometimes as many as tens of thousand of images. These excessively large numbers of images are often indicative of an offender who is trading these images to gain access to groups of like-minded offenders using the Internet.

A greater understanding of Internet offenders has been developed in recent years as a result of ongoing research. This research has not only improved understanding of the types of people accessing these abusive images, it has also helped professionals to have some understanding of the possibilities of progression to contact sexual offences. This research underpins the guidance on assessing risk.

The possession of abusive child images is an indication of a possible serious risk to children. Current research indicates that there is a strong likelihood that those who view these images may go on to abuse children. The material viewed not only de-sensitises the viewer it also gives courage. Those watching many hours of children being sexually abused will often begin to think this type of behaviour is "acceptable". Research in the West Midlands area (Middleton 2003) found that 86% of child abusers viewed child abusive material as a precursor to offending. This research is corroborated by recent work in the area published in the USA. The Butner Study (Bourke and Hernandez 2010) reports that of its cohort of 155 child pornography offenders, 85% admitted to previously unknown contact offences against children, after a period of specialist treatment. Of the remaining 15%, only 2% (3) were verified using polygraph testing as 'image only offenders.'

For additional information see also: ACPO CPAI Lead’s position on Young People and Self-taken Images (now known as The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC)).

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's Services in accordance with the Contacts and Referrals Procedure.

Also, where there are concerns about a child being groomed or exposed to online sexual images by someone inappropriately, via the Internet or other ICT tools like a mobile phone or games console, referrals should be made to the Police and to Children's Services.

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's Services 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 referrals should be taken seriously and information should be shared between the Police and Children's Services as part of the Assessment in order to determine whether a Strategy Discussion should take place.

When someone is discovered to have placed or accessed such material on the Internet, an assessment should be made of the potential likelihood that the individual is involved in the active abuse of children.

Even where there are no children living in the same household, 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.

A Strategy Discussion and any Section 47 Enquiry and 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?
  • Does the person have a relevant offending history?
  • 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 the Managing Allegations against Adults who work with Children and Young People 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?

If the Strategy Discussion/Meeting identifies that there are children potentially at risk, a Section 47 Enquiry should be initiated. Whilst this is ongoing, arrangements must be put in place to ensure that any children affected are safeguarded. This may include the alleged offender living away from the family home and/or only having supervised contact with children.

Intervention should be continually under review if further evidence comes to light.

Assessment of the risks to children posed by Internet offenders can often prove difficult and worrying. The offender may not have abused a child directly and may have children of his own, who display no evidence of having experienced any abuse. It is therefore important that professionals undertaking any assessment work are experienced and well informed about abuse involving the Internet and other information technologies. Where the risks are considered to be high, a specialist in sexual offending should be involved in the assessment.

In assessing the risk that offenders pose to children it is clear that those who have used information technology to attempt to make contact with children must pose a high risk. It will not usually be appropriate for offenders from this group to have any unsupervised contact with children.

It becomes more difficult to assess the risk posed when the alleged abuser has only relatively non-sexual images of children. In carrying out these assessments there are some features of this type of abuse that need to be considered.

The type of image being viewed is a helpful starting point in assessing the risk but it must be borne in mind that there are many other factors that need to be considered. A useful scale of the level of seriousness of these images has been developed by Taylor and Quayle; 2003. This scale is helpful in multi-agency decision-making, when the images will not have been seen by professionals from agencies other than the Police. This scale will assist in achieving a shared understanding of the types of images being considered. It will also help in the assessment of those who have images that do not reach the threshold for prosecution.

Caption: Picture Qualities



Description of Picture Qualities



Non-erotic and non-sexualised pictures showing children in their underwear, swimming costumes, etc. from either commercial sources or family albums; pictures of children playing in normal settings, in which the context or organisation of pictures by the collector indicates inappropriateness



Pictures of semi-naked children in appropriate nudist settings and from legitimate sources.



Surreptitiously taken photographs of children in play areas or other safe environments showing either underwear or varying degrees of nakedness



Deliberately posed pictures of children fully, partially clothed or naked (where the amount, context and organisation suggests sexual interest).


Erotic Posing

Deliberately posed pictures of fully, partially clothed or naked children in sexualised or provocative poses


Explicit Erotic Posing

Emphasising genital areas where the child is either naked, partially or fully clothed.


Explicit Sexual Activity

Involves touching, mutual and self-masturbation, oral sex and intercourse by child, not involving an adult.



Picture of children being subject to a sexual assault, involving digital touching, involving an adult


Gross Assault

Grossly obscene pictures of sexual assault, involving penetrative sex, masturbation or oral sex involving an adult



  1. Picture showing a child being tied, bound, beaten, whipped or otherwise subject to something that implies pain.

  2. Pictures where an animal is involved in some form of sexual behaviour with a child.

From Taylor & Quayle 2003

Whilst it is safe to assume that those looking at the highest level of abusive images pose a serious risk, it is never safe to assume that someone who has mainly images in the lower levels is of little risk to children. Pictures of children may be used by abusers as the basis of sexual fantasies. Without thorough and effective assessment this cannot be gauged. The issue concerning why someone would have a large collection of images of children who are not family members, or even known to the collector, must be addressed.

Where the enquiries have revealed that there are children in the household or in regular contact with the household about whom there are concerns of an increased likelihood of suffering Significant Harm an Initial Child Protection Conference must be convened within 15 working days of the last Strategy Discussion.

Where the concerns of Significant Harm are not substantiated but there may be other concerns about the child's needs, the Assessment should be completed

Where there are no children identified as at an increased likelihood of suffering 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 Child Exploitation and Online Protection Comment (CEOP), part of the National Police Child Abuse and Internet specialist services will be informed as appropriate (see Nationals Contacts).

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 Managing Allegations against Adults who work with Children and young People Procedure should be followed.

Where the person, who is alleged to have accessed or created the indecent images or groomed another child, is a child, the Children who Abuse Others Procedure should be considered as the activities may constitute inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes it an offence for a person (A) aged 18 or over to meet intentionally, or to travel with the intention of meeting a child under 16 in any part of the world, if he has met or communicated with that child on at least two earlier occasions, and intends to commit a "relevant offence" against that child either at the time of the meeting or on a subsequent occasion. An offence is not committed if (A) reasonably believes the child to be 16 or over.

The section is intended to cover situations where an adult (A) establishes contact with a child through for example, communications on the internet and gains the child's trust and confidence so that he can arrange to meet the child for the purpose of committing a "relevant offence" against the child.

The course of conduct prior to the meeting that triggers the offence may have an explicitly sexual content, such as (A) entering into conversations with the child about sexual acts he wants to engage him/her in when they meet, or sending images of adult pornography. However, the prior meetings or communication need not have an explicitly sexual content and could for example simply be (A) giving swimming lessons or meeting him/her incidentally through a friend.

The offence will be complete either when, following the earlier communications, (A) meets the child or travels to meet the child with the intent to commit a relevant offence against the child. The intended offence does not have to take place.

The evidence of (A's) intent to commit an offence may be drawn from the communications between (A) and the child before the meeting or may be drawn from other circumstances, for example if (A) travels to the meeting with ropes, condoms and lubricants.

Subsection (2) (a) provides that (A's) previous meetings or communications with the child can have taken place in or across any part of the world. This would cover for example (A) emailing the child from abroad, (A) and the child speaking on the telephone abroad, or (A) meeting the child abroad. The travel to the meeting itself must at least partly take place in England or Wales or Northern Ireland.

Child Abuse on the Internet; Ed. Arnaldo, Carlos A. 2001 UNESCO

Child Sexual Abuse and the Internet: Tackling the New Frontier; Ed. Calder, Martin C. 2004 Russell House

Child Pornography, an Internet Crime; Taylor, M and Quayle, E. 2003, Brunner Routledge

Child Abuse, Child Pornography and the Internet; Carr, J. 2005 NCH

Internet Safety

Last Updated: December 7, 2023