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  • Protect Children

The Long-Lasting Impact of Online Child Sexual Abuse

Updated: Jun 11

Insights from parents of child victims and adult survivors of online child sexual abuse on the long-lasting impact of online child sexual abuse and exploitation.


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A startling one in five children in Europe falls victim to some form of sexual violence, according to an estimation by the Council of Europe. Parents and guardians who have experienced sexual violence against their child are often burdened by challenging emotions, duration of criminal proceedings, and a lack of awareness on how to help the recovery of their child and the whole family. Acknowledging this need for support, Protect Children has facilitated You Are Enough™ peer support groups in Finland since January 2021 to support parents whose children have fallen victim to sexual violence (Read more about the You Are Enough™ groups). Parents join groups based on the type of offence and the proximity of the offender; including intrafamilial, extrafamilial contact crimes, and crimes with an online element.  


The groups focusing on online offences have evoked concerns due to a number of child victims of online sexual violence presenting with severe long-term mental health difficulties and suicidality. We are concerned that children who have experienced this form of crime are not receiving support that sufficiently considers the specific elements of online crimes negatively impacting the victim’s mental well-being and healing. 



You are Enough parental peer support groups

There is a need for further research to understand the differing impact of online and offline sexual violence on children’s mental well-being. The most recent research and supportive work with survivors indicates that online elements of sexual abuse may worsen or complicate impact and bring further challenges to victim’s recovery, for example by leading to higher levels of PTS symptoms (Hanson, 2017; Jonsson and Svedin, 2017). Factors that have been suggested to contribute to the worsened impact are the permanence of pictures or videos of the abuse, which leads to increased feelings of self-blame, and the emotional abuse often used by perpetrators when lacking opportunities to physically intimidate and threaten the victim (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al., 2017). The role of shame and self-blame caused by lack of physical intimidation and the victim failing to see the power of perpetrator's manipulation and coercive behaviour online could explain the worsened impact as it may lead to cognitive distortion of the victim being responsible. This cognitive distortion of victim blaming may be adopted by the victim but also by people around the victim including parents and professionals.  


Preliminary results of the ‘Our Voice’ survivor survey collected by Protect Children supports the concerns evoked by the You are Enough™ groups. When comparing survivors’ self-reported long-lasting symptoms of those whose abuse included an online element (N=219) to those whose abuse did not include an online element (N=3,343), the results show a higher number of reported symptoms for those with an online element in all categories, as the graph below outlines.  


Long term impact and symptoms

longterm impact and symptoms graph

A parent attending a You are Enough™ peer support group for parents of child victims of online sexual violence, which is funded by the EU as part of 2KNOW project, describes her child’s symptoms of revictimization as follows: 


“Because of her feeling of inferiority, she constantly seeks harmful relationships. She doesn’t feel comfortable with stable people.”  


Another parent of the same group continues describing her child’s symptoms negatively impacting her life due to: 


“a lot of absences, school in general becoming more difficult, grades dropping and having fatigue due to sleep problems.” 


 When asked about getting support, one parent of the group explains the family’s struggle as follows: 


“We have found seeking help very difficult and frustrating. In general, there has been a lot of help (adolescent psychiatry service and a temporary child foster placement more than once), but nothing has helped. The problems have only changed and are now focused on substance abuse.” 


A systematic review of 25 studies examining possible risk and protective factors that might explain the established link between child sexual abuse and future victimizations identified only one protective factor: perceived parental care (Scoglio et.al., Systematic Review of Risk and Protective Factors for Revictimization After Child Sexual Abuse, 2021). Protect Children will continue to facilitate You are Enough™ peer support groups as they promote parents’, child victims’ and the whole family’s healing as demonstrated by the following quotes of parents who have attended the groups:  


“Hearing the experiences and thoughts of other participants helped me process my own experiences. There was no need to try to cope all alone. The fact that what we have been through could help someone else was also important to me.” 


“Speaking my thoughts out loud made me feel better and I could better understand my child. With the help of peer support, I gained many new perspectives and ways of supporting my child.” 


“What happened can't be ignored, but you can learn to live with it. What happened does not define me or my child. I appreciate myself more and listen to myself more. I am also more present to the family and enjoy the good times we have.” 


Protect Children will continue working with a holistic approach to prevent all forms of sexual violence against children, with a strong commitment to base all our work on research. Research on sexual violence against children will help us develop more efficient support systems for parents and child victims of sexual crimes. Collecting invaluable information from parents and survivors of childhood sexual abuse will help us to further understand the differences in impact of child sexual abuse with and without an online element. Further research will help the development of more targeted support to child victims of online sexual crimes and their families.  


 

Katariina Leivo

Senior Specialist at Protect Children


Nina Vaaranen-Valkonen

Executive Director, Senior Specialist, Psychotherapist at Protect Children



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