‘My 17-year-old son was arrested for sharing child abuse images – he said it was a relief’

2 months ago
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Louise* thought she had been open and clear with her two children about the dangers of the internet. But last year there was a knock on her door at 6am. It was the police looking for her 17-year-old son.

“There were five or six police coming up my stairs,” she says. “When they said they were looking for my son because of indecent images I thought I was going to pass out.

“I was saying, ‘Oh my God he’s autistic – has he been groomed?’ They bagged up all his devices and took him away. I was so petrified for him I was throwing up once they left.”

Louise’s son is one of thousands of under-18s picked up by police intelligence for viewing or sharing indecent images of children in the past year.

Research published in February found some people viewing child sexual abuse material (CSAM) said they had become desensitised to adult pornography, leading them to seek out more extreme or violent material.

In December, a Guardian investigation found that in some regions the majority of people identified by police as watching or sharing indecent images of children were under 18.

Experts say this is part of a wider crisis that is being driven by predators grooming children via chat apps and social media sites.

In January, the Internet Watch Foundation warned that more than 90% of child abuse images on the internet were self-generated – created and shared by children themselves.

Louise says her son was led down a dangerous pathway from a natural teenage curiosity in pornography to chatting and sharing sexual images with strangers. Alex* was convicted of viewing and sharing a small number of images of child abuse. He had images in category A (rape and abuse of small children) on his devices and had shared images in category B and C.

Louise is fully aware that her son – who was given an 18-month community sentence order and is now on the sex offender register for five years – committed a serious offence and has to take responsibility. But she wants other parents to understand how the pathways work.

“It started with an obsession that is common to a lot of autistic young people,” she says. “He loved manga and anime. I can’t tell you how many miles I drove to get comics for him.

“That interest led him to sexualised images of the same comics, then into groups where teenagers were sharing porn.”

Alex has since admitted to his mother that he was curious about pornography and joined online groups with names such as “sex images 13 to 17”. “What teenager isn’t curious?” Louise says.

It was on these well-known sites and chat apps that adults were waiting to groom young people like him.

“He had so many messages,” says Louise. “I mean literally thousands of messages from people trying to groom him. This is a boy who has spent years trying to conform as an autistic child in school, to try to fit in socially. Who has been bullied. And he suddenly felt included. He felt a buzz.

“Adults asked him to share images of abuse for them. If he hadn’t been caught who knows where it would have ended up.”

Louise asked Alex why he didn’t show an adult the images he was sent.

“I even said to him, ‘Why didn’t you just tell me when you opened the images?’ And he said, ‘Mum, do you know hard it is to do that? To explain the months of being online in these spaces.’ His actual words when the police came were, ‘Oh, thank God.’ It was a relief to him.”

She says lockdown shifted the balance for young people such as her son, moving life online. “They were told, ‘Just go online, do everything on there.’”

Alex and his mother are receiving help from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a charity offering support to online sex offenders. Last year, 217,889 people contacted its help services, concerned about their own or someone else’s sexual thoughts or behaviour.

The organisation recently set up a website called Shore, aimed at younger people who are worried about their own sexual thoughts and behaviour. Calls to its helpline from under-18s went up by 32% when the country came out of lockdown.

Alex also spoke about the dangerous place he found himself in. “I was in my final year of sixth form and I was anxious and afraid about friendships ending because I was staying at home and friends were leaving for university.

“This is where I made a fateful decision to try to create friendships using multiple chat platforms. There was no intent of any sexual engagement but a combination of natural sexual interest, fear of falling behind my friends in experience and the strong effects of anonymity made it very easy to engage in these matters.”

He warns that his generation are using the online world in a way that needs new thinking to protect children better.

“This isn’t an issue that can be fixed by telling people not to talk to strangers on the internet. This is outdated information,” he says.

“Many people believe this content is only found on the dark web when it can actually be found in the most shallow parts of the internet with no effort. It is very scary to realise this and it would have deterred me but unfortunately I was in too deep and it was too late for me.”
• If a child is concerned about images they may have shared themselves this can be reported via Childline’s joint service with the Internet Watch Foundation, Report Remove. You can also report child sexual abuse imagery via the same website. If you are concerned about a young person’s sexual behaviour, visit: shorespace.org.uk…Read more by Nathan Thomas

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