Pornography driving UK teens towards child abuse material, say experts

Child abuse experts and police are warning that access to increasingly extreme pornography is driving a rise in harmful sexual behaviour among young people, from sexting to watching online child abuse.

One charity that works to prevent child sexual abuse said there had been a 30% increase in under-18s contacting them, and a 26% rise in adults contacting them because they were concerned about the behaviour of a young person.

Rachel Haynes, a senior practitioner at the charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation said that since lockdown their Stop It Now! helpline – originally designed for adults – has been called by more teenagers.

“As a service we have seen an increase in under-18s contacting us for support,” she said. “We particularly began to see it when we launched a chat service for adults during lockdown.”

As a result they have launched a groundbreaking website in the UK aimed at helping teenagers who are worried about their own sexual thoughts or behaviour.

The site is called Shore and is the first of its kind in Europe and one of only three in the world. It has a chat and email service for teenagers aged 13 to 18, who can get in touch anonymously.

One of the most alarming developments for the charity and for police has been the rise in minors watching or sharing illegal child abuse material.

Since 2020, about two-thirds of the young people who contacted the helpline have spoken about indecent images of children. At present, half of the young callers will be already known to police, but the charity wants to move to earlier intervention.

Haynes says: “A large proportion of young people we work with have downloaded child sexual abuse material – the pathways they reach that by are complex.

“Porn is a contributing factor – teenagers become desensitised to what they are seeing. Sometimes they have been groomed by adults, or have been sent illegal images during sexualised chats online.”

DCI Tony Garner leads a specialist online child sexual exploitation team at West Mercia police. He said: “Quite often when we go through a door following intelligence on someone watching or sharing child sexual abuse, we find a teenager. There is a crisis here and it’s being driven by young people having access to very extreme pornography that is changing their brains.

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“I think this is a very important and much-needed project.”

Haynes hopes that Shore will change the lack of opportunity for talking about online harm.

“There is a stigma – young people don’t have spaces where they feel they can talk openly. Often when we speak to them it’s the first time they have spoken about it to anyone,” he said.


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