Report reveals 1 in 7 teens have experienced abuse relating to online ‘nude-sharing’, calls for earlier prevention in schools

A boy sits, using a smartphone.

New Internet Matters report, ‘Shifting the dial’, sets out new proposals to prevent children from sharing sexual images of themselves.

Summary

  • Measures include starting early with single sex lessons on prevention from the start of secondary school, as part of a range of tools and approaches.
  • Report reveals the scale of the challenge with one in seven teens aged 16 and under having experienced a form of image-based sexual abuse of which more than half say that the perpetrator was a young person known to them.
  • Report follows recent alert to all schools highlighting an increase in ‘sextortion’, particularly for teenage boys

A new report, “Shifting the dial: methods to prevent self-generated child sexual abuse among 11–13-year-olds”, puts forward new proposals to stem the surge in children and young people sharing self-generated child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The research was funded by Nominet, the public benefit company and guardian of the UK namespace and delivered in partnership with Praesidio Safeguarding.

Self-generated CSAM ranges from material that is voluntarily shared between peers (where material is re-shared without their knowledge or consent) to coerced ‘self-generated’ imagery where grooming, pressure or manipulation has been used to obtain the material. With all forms of self-generated imagery there is a significant risk that it passes into the hands of adult offenders and is shared and distributed within offender networks.

Children aged 11-to-13 appear most frequently in self-generated content and the volume of self-generated sexual images depicting this age group continues to rise at a disturbing rate, with a 14% increase in the year 2022 to 2023 alone (from 199,363 in 2022 to 254,071 in 2023) Findings from a recent nationally representative survey by Internet Matters have revealed that 14% of teenagers under the age of 16 say they have experienced a form of image-based sexual abuse. This would account for over 400,000 children in the UK. A quarter of teenagers under 16 in the same survey said they are aware of a form of image-based abuse being perpetrated against another young person.

In April, all schools in the UK were sent information from the National Crime Agency, raising awareness of the recent rise in reporting of financially motivated sexual extortion targeting children and young people. This involves an adult offender (often from an organised crime group based overseas) threatening to release nude or semi-nude images and/or videos of a child or young person, unless they pay money, or meet another financial demand. A large proportion of cases have involved male victims aged 14-18.

Most efforts to tackle the issue of self-generated abuse content have focused on removing this content once it is already in circulation, which is necessary and vital work, however this needs to be accompanied by greater emphasis on preventing sexual content from being shared in the first place.

Research findings

As ‘Shifting the dial’ sets out, there are a lack of programmes tailored by gender to prevent CSAM, despite girls being overwhelmingly the victims of online sexual abuse. There is also a lack of evidence about what works to deter children from sharing sexual images online. In recent years, some resources have been criticised for being simplistic or victim blaming towards girls or young women.

Today’s research was formulated from speaking with different focus groups of 111 different children (58 girls and 53 boys) on multiple occasions. It asked them which educational messages would be effective in dissuading 11-to-13-year-olds of different genders from sharing sexual images, and how these messages are best targeted. The research reveals:

Many children say they have received no specific education in relation to sexual image sharing or only very superficial coverage in RSHE/RSE lessons, and that they don’t feel able to get the information they want in whole class groups. When the issue was discussed, it was not perceived to be detailed enough or to offer enough information and was usually delivered by teachers that were non-subject specialists who they felt often sped through the topic because they found it ‘awkward’.

Children said that currently they typically learn more about sexual image-sharing from sources outside of school such as friends and family, or informally in school from gossip around certain incidents, as well as from TV and social media. In many cases this information is variable in quality and unsafe – for example tending to minimise or normalise sexual image sharing.

Girls in particular want smaller, gender-based groups. They said they found it hard to share or discuss issues in front of the boys in their class for fear of being teased or bullied. Some pupils identified that they were usually taught RSHE/RSE in form groups that they do not know as well as their learning groups, and this increased the discomfort and awkwardness of discussing such a personal topic.

Girls were generally negative about “consequences of sharing” messaging or any messaging they felt was simplistic and failed to address the underlying causes of sexual image-sharing.

Girls said they wanted more information earlier in secondary school and felt that currently the lessons they do receive are too late. Children said sending sexual images was a ‘serious’ and ‘potentially dangerous’ issue that should be addressed at a young age before it happens, for example at primary school or in Year 7.

Strikingly, boys saw huge value in messages which tackle ‘perpetrator’ behaviour with unequivocal and un-sensationalised information about the consequences and legality of this behaviour.

Girls say they want educational resources to acknowledge the much greater likelihood that boys will behave as perpetrators, pressuring girls for images, while girls are more likely to experience harassment for those images. Girls said boys should receive perpetrator-targeted messaging that would help them to understand the harmful impact of demanding nude images from others.

As part of this research, Internet Matters also trialled two digital methods of prevention – an interactive game and an ‘in-the-moment’ nudge technique – which could be available on digital devices. Both showed promise and received an enthusiastic response from the children’s panels. Internet Matters will be developing these further, following feedback from children, parents, and professionals to make them available to a wider number of children.

The children in the Internet Matters panels also appreciated the single sex RSHE lessons that Internet Matters designed and felt that learning in smaller groups that were split by gender worked well. They appreciated the interactivity and discussion-based nature of the lesson as well as the revised messaging.

Following this research, Internet Matters is recommending teaching on this topic to be delivered by gender-based groups in the classroom, from an earlier age, and to be accompanied by digital prevention methods (e.g. nudges) to tackle this problem at scale.

Carolyn Bunting MBE, co-CEO of Internet Matters, said: 

“The surge in children sharing nudes of themselves is terrifying, and some children are suffering significant harm. Abuse material can end up in the hands of networks of adults, where images are traded and commodified.

“We need to move towards a much stronger system of prevention. Despite significant steps forward, including recent reforms to the statutory RSE curriculum, far too few children are receiving adequate support and advice on online sexual harassment and abuse.

“As this report sets out, there is a lack of programmes tailored by gender, despite girls being overwhelmingly the victim of online sexual abuse.

“Children need and want improved education on sexual image-sharing. This should begin with a move towards single sex lessons when discussing this issue, and from a much earlier age. It is no use waiting until most girls have reached an age where they have already been using tech for many years.”

Paul Fletcher, CEO of Nominet, said:  

“In recent years, there’s been an alarming rise in so-called ‘self-generated’ child sexual abuse imagery – created when an abuser isn’t physically present in the room with a victim. Self-generated images now account for most of the online child sexual abuse being reported in the UK.

“It’s therefore vital that, as a society, we can effectively engage young people on the topic of sexual image sharing, to help them make informed and positive decisions. This research provides important insights on what works and will act as a strong foundation for future interventions in this space.”

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