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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Internet Investigation Report

A.1: The background to the investigation

1. There are an estimated 14 million children under the age of 18 in the United Kingdom. Millions of those children regularly use the internet and enjoy the benefits of easy access to information and near instantaneous communication that the internet provides. At the same time, those children are potentially being exposed to perpetrators who commit online-facilitated sexual offences.

2. In 2018, Ofcom reported that:[1]

  • more than half of three and four-year-olds spent nearly nine hours a week online, and 19 percent had access to their own tablet;
  • 93 percent of eight to 11-year-olds spent about 13½ hours a week online, 35 percent had their own smartphone and 47 percent had their own tablet; and
  • 99 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds spent 20½ hours online per week, 50 percent had their own tablet and 83 percent had their own smartphone.

3. The internet has created opportunities for sexual offending against children. It enables perpetrators to view images of a child being sexually abused (also referred to as indecent images of children). The number of indecent images in circulation is in the many millions.

4. The internet is also used to groom children. Grooming includes building a relationship with a child in order to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse or exploitation. This can include forcing, manipulating or enticing a child to engage in sexual activity, either with themselves or with other children. These acts are then often live streamed and images taken of the footage. The move from establishing online contact with a child to meeting them in person and physically sexually abusing them can happen quickly.[2]

5. The Inquiry’s Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA)[3] Behaviour and Characteristics of Perpetrators of Online-facilitated Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation indicates that perpetrators are predominantly men from white or European backgrounds, with online offenders “less likely to have criminal backgrounds, previous convictions or prior anti-social histories than contact offenders”.[4] In 2015, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) estimated that over half a million men had viewed indecent images of children.[5] UK law enforcement estimated that, in 2016, there may have been as many as 100,000 people in the UK involved in the downloading and sharing of child sexual abuse images.[6]

6. It would be wrong to assume, however, that online-facilitated child sexual abuse is an exclusively male phenomenon. For example:

  • In 2009, nursery worker Vanessa George pleaded guilty to a number of sexual offences against children and making, possessing and distributing indecent images. The images of the abuse she committed were sent to two other offenders whom she had met on Facebook.[7]
  • More recently, in August 2019, Jodie Little was jailed for 12 years and four months for sexually abusing a boy and a girl both aged under 13. She recorded the abuse and sold it on the internet.[8]

7. Child sexual abuse imagery has become ever more depraved and the victims ever younger. From April 2018 to March 2019, police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland recorded 7,618 sexual offences against children aged between four and eight years old.[9] Law enforcement frequently encounter images of babies and toddlers being raped by adult males and children being sexually tortured.

8. The growing scale of child sexual abuse, including access to the most horrific and depraved indecent images, is facilitated by the internet. The offending is such that online child sexual abuse and exploitation is recognised by the UK government to be “a national security threat”,[10] with reports about the volume, severity and complexity of the online threat being made to the National Security Council.[11]

9. It is against this background that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has examined the institutional responses to online-facilitated child sexual abuse.

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