Preventing online sexual abuse: understanding the problem as a first step to informing prevention

While it is widely acknowledged that the Internet has many positive aspects, it may be used by some individuals to engage in illegal behaviour. Durkin (1997) suggested four different ways in which the Internet may be misused by individuals who have a sexual interest in children: (a) exchanging child sexual abuse material; (b) identifying potential victims for sexual abuse in the physical world; (c) engaging in inappropriate sexual communication; and (d) corresponding with like-minded individuals. The ‘engagement in inappropriate sexual communication’ involves offenders accessing Internet communication platforms (ICPs) to approach children and initiate conversations with them, which may develop into interactions in which offenders incite them to engage in sexually explicit talk and/or activities. As part of such interactions, offenders may request sexual images and exposure via webcam. This is commonly referred to as ‘online sexual grooming’. The following blog post explores the cutting edge research of Dr Juliane Kloess at the University of Birmingham, and looks at what we know about offenders, and what can be done to support young people around awareness of the risks of online abuse.

What do we know about offending behaviour:

A doctoral research project conducted between 2011 and 2014 in the UK aimed to gain a better understanding of the characteristics, modus operandi and motivations of individuals who engage in offending behaviour that involves sexual grooming as part of sexually exploitative interactions with children, which took place via ICPs. It was the first research to be published using real-world data (i.e., naturally-occurring, actual typed online conversations).  

Its findings have proven to provide a unique insight into this phenomenon and led to the clarification of a number of misconceptions (for the purpose of this blog post I will be focussing on the two main points):

1.)    Findings from the analysis of transcripts of chat logs revealed apparent differences in offending behaviour, whereby some offenders spent considerable time conversing and interacting with victims in a way that resembled a process of relationship-building. Here, although sexual content was introduced more gently, this still occurred relatively early in the interactions, with a clear progression in terms of sexual topics discussed and sexual activity engaged in. Other offenders immediately introduced sexual themes, presenting with no interest in getting to know victims or having a conversation with them. They further moved from one interaction to the next, depending on victims’ compliance and engagement, resulting in a greater number of victims than offenders who employed an indirect approach.


The finding that a majority of the interactions did not progress to a physical meeting supports more recent research suggesting that there is a group of individuals who are solely motivated to engage in ‘cybersexual’ interactions with children. Briggs, Simon and Simonsen (2011) referred to these individuals as ‘fantasy-driven’, distinguishing them from those who were predominantly motivated to arrange a physical meeting (i.e., ‘contact-driven’). This dimension of fantasy- versus contact-driven suggests that offenders’ motivation may be in place at the time they approach a child, and remains stable throughout, thereby not taking into account the individual dynamics of each interaction, which undoubtedly lead to changes in an offender’s motivation and the goal they seek to pursue over the course of an interaction.


2.)    Aspects of sexual grooming were merely present in interactions of an indirect approach and lacking in those of a direct approach, supporting the idea that there are apparent differences in the way offenders approach victims and the types of strategies they use to initiate contact. Of interest was also that offenders appeared to be relatively consistent in terms of the strategies they used across interactions with different victims. This may suggest that the availability of a great number of users makes it unnecessary for offenders to adapt their approaches/strategies in interactions with non-compliant victims.


Contrary to assertions in the literature that offenders engage in a process of sexual grooming for the purpose of arranging a physical meeting with a particular child, most interactions lacked a process thereof altogether. This is an important finding as it challenges the use of ‘sexual/online grooming’ to refer to such interactions. It also provides new insights into the varied nature of sexually exploitative interactions, and suggests that ICPs may facilitate a more directive approach by offenders, whereby they bypass conventional constraints of achieving another person’s compliance. This would also support the role of opportunity in the progression and escalation of offending behaviour.

Implications for policy:

The finding that most interactions lacked a process of sexual grooming contests current applications of this terminology and its definition to sexually exploitative interactions. The apparent discrepancies and variations not only hinder our understanding of this phenomenon, but also impact on young people’s awareness and recognition of it. This is exacerbated by the labelling of Section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Home Office, 2003) as the ‘sexual grooming legislation’, despite the process of sexual grooming not being its focus.

Transcripts of chat logs may further provide important information about offender’s sexual fantasies, interests/preferences, and potential paraphilic tendencies, whose assessment can prove difficult in light of absent evidence. Knowledge thereof is essential to inform appropriate risk assessment protocols, treatment needs and management requirements. Here, it is also of importance to consider offenders’ possession of child sexual abuse material. In the research’s sample, it appeared that most of the images offenders possessed were gathered as part of their online interactions with victims. This constitutes different offending behaviour to that of downloading this type of material and needs to be taken into account when charging offenders for the possession thereof.

In terms of education initiative and programmes, Finkelhor (2014 & 2015) proposes that a more generic education about life skills, rather than a specialised Internet safety training, may have the potential to be more effective in terms of prevention. Many programmes currently lack sufficient intensity, are dominated by scare messages, over-emphasise “stranger danger”, and rarely evaluate outcomes (Finkelhor, 2017). A recent evaluation of the effectiveness of Internet child safety material as part of education programmes delivered in the US revealed that critical elements of effective preventative measures were lacking. The report further found that most young people are aware that engaging in certain behaviours online may be risky. Therefore, a more generic education about life skills that focuses on conflict management, empathy promotion, emotional regulation, consequence anticipation, refusal techniques, bystander mobilisation and help-seeking not only equips young people with useful skills to handle, manage and deal with arising problems in the physical world, but also online.