A new study by a Finnish NGO suggests that most of those who view CSAM (child sexual abuse material) online started to do so when they were children themselves.
Protect Children, a Finnish NGO working to protect children from sexual violence, conducted the study on the dark web. Nearly 8,500 CSAM users around the world responded to the NGO's survey called ReDirection.
Users searching for CSAM on the dark web received a link to the survey, which the organisation said was opened more than 150,000 times.
The NGO has now launched a programme that aims to help people to stop viewing CSAM based on the results of the survey.
"We already know quite a lot about people convicted of sex crimes. But we don't know as much about people looking at these types of images," said psychologist Nina Nurminen who worked with the initiative.
"I was 11 years old"
Many CSAM users were children themselves when they were first exposed to CSAM. Some 70 percent of respondents said they were minors the first time they encountered CSAM. Thirty-nine percent said they were 13 or younger.
"I don't know how to stop looking at this material. I was 11 the first time I saw it and now I feel guilty," one of the respondents said.
The dark web survey has been available in 12 languages, including Finnish. Seventy-three people have so far responded in Finnish.
Nurminen said learning that many of the users were young was an important discovery.
"The earlier we can make prevention efforts, the better we can intervene," she explained.
Around half of respondents said they accidentally stumbled on CSAM.
"Exposure to CSAM under the age of 13 can be seen as an adverse childhood experience, with potentially far-reaching negative and harmful impact on wellbeing and development," said psychotherapist Nina Vaaranen-Valkonen, executive director of Protect Children.
In collaboration with prison psychologist Mikko Ylipekka, Nurminen has now drawn on the survey results to develop a self-help programme for CSAM users called ReDirection. The programme applies techniques employed in Finnish prisons.
On Monday, Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS) published the ReDirection self-help programme on its mental health portal.
People searching for CSAM on the dark web will also receive a link to the programme, which is available in English and Spanish.
The three-pronged self-help programme first encourages users to reflect on their reasons for searching illegal images and to consider how this behaviour impacts their lives. They are then asked to analyse what triggers them to seek out CSAM. The third and final phase aims to "redirect" users away from this habit. The survey report noted that the approach differs from traditional ways of preventing the use of CSAM, and is inspired by "compassion-focused therapy."
"With current technology it's impossible to remove all of the CSAM available online. That's why we have to help people who want to stop viewing illicit material," said Anna Ovaska, a legal specialist at Protect Children.
Online to real life
Survey results found that 40 percent of those who view CSAM online seek out kids in real life after looking at images. Some 60 percent of respondents said they feared that looking at CSAM would lead them to perpetrate sexual acts on children.
Some 45 percent of respondents admitted to watching live streaming of child sex abuse.
"I haven't tried to stop [looking at images] because I don't know where I can get help," one respondent said.
However many of those looking at abusive material didn't believe it was hampering their life in any way. Fewer than half of respondents said their actions in relation to CSAM were problematic.
Nurminen said many CSAM users don't consider themselves to have a problem despite accessing material sexually exploiting children.
She said that while some CSAM users are sexually motivated, others may be socially awkward and struggle to make contact with people. Some may also feel they need to dominate others.
It's not a crime in Finland to look at CSAM online, but spreading it is and can carry a penalty of up to six years in prison. Storing CSAM is also a punishable offence.
Finnish police say that reports of CSAM images doubled in 2020, when children were home for longer periods as restrictions were brought in for contact teaching and some hobbies.